Updated: Aug 8
I have shared the opinion before that some of Christopher Nolan's work can be cold. Who knew it would take an atomic bomb for him to make his most emotional work to date? Oppenheimer is a masterful portrait of the man behind the bomb. Told on a massive canvas that beautifully suits this immense story of science, hubris, and history, Oppenheimer may just be Nolan's most accomplished film.
At the center of the film is a stirring and captivating performance by Cillian Murphy. The three-hour film rarely turns its attention to anyone else and while the film is full of strong supporting performances (especially for Robert Downy Jr, Matt Damon, and Emily Blunt), the film would be nothing without Murphy's fascinating portrayal.
Initially, the film can feel jumbled, a reflection of the director's often non-linear storytelling methods. However, patience pays off as we see why Nolan is jumping around to moments in Oppenheimer's life. The film is not only exploring the intellectual life and legacy of one of America's most complicated figures but Nolan is also the driving force that led America to a point in which possibly destroying the world was the only way to save itself. Quantum mechanics, which is so core to the story here, becomes a neat metaphor for the duality of this story. Light can be both particle and wave so therefore, ambition can also be obsession.
Nolan's film seeks to live in these contradictions. Oppenheimer is a man of brilliance and ignorance, confidence and hubris, scientific progress, and moral obligation. The film covers three decades of the man's life from his early years in academia to the unceremonious end of his career, being stripped of security clearance out of fears he may have Communist ties.
At the center of the film is the design, building, and testing of the bomb at Los Alamos Laboratory. Oppenheimer is shown to be a charismatic leader but one that fails to see the dangers that surround him. This extends to his personal life where a volatile affair with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) nearly undoes him while his marriage to Kitty Harrison (Emily Blunt) is tested. It is in these relationship moments that Nolan moves beyond the spectral qualities that so many of his female characters take on. In the final act, Kitty is given a moment to shine that feels new to Nolan's filmography.
While the film's structure can be fragmented, we are given two clear views of the main character. One comes from Oppenheimer himself, told in IMAX full color. The other is a black-and-white POV from Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss (Downey Jr.) who held an extreme resentment for Oppenheimer. Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography is astonishing. Nolan is the master of cinematic grandeur.
While the film is long, Oppenheimer feels like Nolan's best-paced film to date. It never dips in pace as it hurtles towards a moving ending. The final moment here is the best shot Nolan has committed to film. He manages to move beyond the typical biopic tropes. That final shot extends the film far beyond one man to something we all have to wrestle with. Oppenheimer feels like the kind of film that is going to reveal itself over multiple viewings, generally the mark of a great film.