From the moment Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer dropped its first teaser trailer more than a year ago, a clock has been counting down throughout its existence in not just video form, but on promotional materials displayed in cinemas around the world. One could have suspected that they were ticking towards the release date of the film, but those with a cleverer eye concluded that the countdown was inching second by second to the exact date, July 15, when the Trinity test was conducted in Los Alamos by Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team of scientists, and thus the confirmed birth of the atomic bomb and the subsequent end to World War II. In the moments after the test is concluded, and its success is confirmed, you would think its creator would be as celebratory as the fellow scientists and military personnel he worked closely with for years are in the creation of this powerful weapon. But he isn’t because he knows what their work has done. It’s changed the world, for better and for worse, and any jubilation quickly turns into fear and paranoia that he can’t shake. Within a three-hour tense, pulse pounding historical epic about one of the most fascinating people to ever live on this planet, Christopher Nolan has delivered a truly haunting piece of cinema about the dangers of the bomb, how it crumbled the man that created it, and how corrupt the systems and institutions we put our faith into fail us once we lean on them, making for a damning showcase of American exceptionalism.
When we first meet Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), he is in a vulnerable position, having to defend himself against an advisory board that is looking to take away his security clearance and soil his distinguished reputation post his time on the Manhattan Project. Since the creation of the bomb, he has made a lot of enemies, both in the political and scientific communities, and now they are coming for him at from all sides, looking to take down the self-proclaimed “prophet.” Against the advice of his lawyers, he sets out to clear his name, and in typical dramatic biopic fashion, lays the groundwork for the audience to follow him back to before the bomb, when he was a young American student in Europe in the 1920s, tossing and turning in his sleep at the endless possibilities his work in theoretical physics could bring to the world. It’s here where Nolan uses these moments to brilliantly capture the essence of what it looks like inside the mind of a genius like Oppenheimer, and how their work is molded at such a young age through nothing but black matter, soundwaves, and particles forming the math that would make him a household name in the scientific community across the world.
Over the course of the decade, during his time overseas, he meets multiple men that see the potential of his genius, including Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), the legendary Danish physicist whose early contributions were the launching pad for Oppenheimer’s life work and a vessel to open up his curiosity at such a young age. Bohr suggests to the young Oppenheimer to travel around the continent, asking questions to all of those who will answer, thus expanding his mind and opening up his inspiration. Nolan cuts back and forth from the particle sequences to social encounters seamlessly in dazzling fashion, with Oppenheimer even briefly meeting Werner Heisenberg (Matthias Schweighöfer), the German physicist who he would be racing against to build the bomb. Nolan uses these scenes to convey that before the chase for building a weapon of death, there was a time when men and women of science could come and just share ideas. But the looming World War quickly ends those pleasantries and begins the arms race for global dominance.
By the time we reach the 1930s, while his name is growing, his ambition and longing to return home to share his findings with his American counterparts reaches its breaking point. When he is given the chance to lead a theoretical physics department at Cal Berkeley, he jumps right into it, and by the mid-1930s, in just a couple of years, he builds the top scientific academic department in the entire country. As he is teaching by day, he is learning and experimenting by night with various social clubs in the area, with some ties to radical ideas that lead to the Communist Party. In an evening that will haunt Oppenheimer for the rest of his night, he meets Jean Tatlock (played by an underutilized Florence Pugh), a young woman and member of the Communist party who has an on and off relationship with Robert for many years. Drawn to her like a moth to a flame, they carry on their love affair even after Oppenheimer marries Kitty (Emily Blunt), whose own complicated past has led to her fourth marriage once she tied the knot with Robert due to their affair leading to her becoming pregnant with their first child. Blunt, who much like Pugh, is not given a lot of time within this grand story, but nails every moment she is in the film, playing Kitty as a woman trapped in a life she doesn’t want to be a part of, trying to find relief at the bottom of a bottle of booze. Her standout moment is towards the end of the film, where she showcased the fire Kitty has for her husband in a moment where he needs her more than ever.
Between his scandalous love life, his friendship with Haakon Chevalier, whose Communist ties link him back to Russia based on the FBI findings, and his push and pull relationship with his Berkeley colleague Ernest Lawrence (an exceptional Josh Hartnett), there is no way that Oppenheimer, who knows that a team is being assembled to create a bomb before the Nazis do, can join. But in a moment of compromise with Lawrence over settling down his involvement with any radical affiliations, he is accepted as a member of the team in 1942, and later appointed the director of the project by Lieutenant General Leslie Groves (a spectacular Matt Damon). Murphy and Damon’s chemistry shines in not just their first interaction as two men from different mindsets colliding into each other to create this bomb, but throughout the whole film as two men who are just doing what they think is right to make sure their mission is complete, even if there are still reservations about each other long after the button is pushed. Between Air earlier this year and this performance, Damon is consistently delivering some of his best work to date.
In the creation of the team behind the atomic bomb lies Los Alamos, the location where most of the film takes place. Oppenheimer recruits not just dozens of the top minds from across the allied countries (including wonderful supporting performances from Benny Safdie, David Krumholtz, Jack Quaid, Josh Peck, and Olivia Thirlby just to name a few) but also wants their families to come too so that the members of the team are putting their best work forward. Ruth De Jong’s expertly detailed production design takes us back to a place that was entirely created for the sole purpose of this mission’s success. By creating this community, it is presented as the backdrop to one of the scariest moments in human history due to the slight chance that all of the work done by Oppenheimer’s team could create a device that would turn the world’s atmosphere into fire and the people who live in it into ash. In what is the best screenplay to date, Nolan takes the renowned Pulitzer Prize winning biography American Prometheus (a title lifted and placed into the dialogue of the film), and creates an equally rich and dense piece of writing that contains a multitude of layers, while (reportedly) told in the first person, to allow the reader to access Oppenheimer’s thought process.
He ping pongs dialogue back and forth between each character, allowing the audience to feel the tension rise between each conversation as we get closer and closer to the Trinity test. By doing this, when Oppenheimer states “They won’t fear it until they understand it. And they won’t understand it until they’ve used it,” the urgency in dialogue is that of an enormous burden that is close to being lifted off their shoulders once their mission is complete. These moments are mixed together with an unbelievable score from Oscar winning composer Ludwig Göransson, allowing the film’s pace to never slow down and continue to rise till the bombastic sound demonstrated throughout is completely cut off, and we emerge into the shoes of Oppenheimer as his test is pulled off in elegantly, terrifying style by Nolan and his excellent cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. It is the crown jewel of this entire film and one of the best cinematic moments of Nolan’s filmography, fully using the wide IMAX frame to capture every angle of the horror an atom bomb can create.
But beyond the science and the war lies the real enemy of Oppenheimer’s work, and they comprise the very same men, both military and political, that put him in charge of creating the bomb in the first place, most notably Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). Strauss, a self-made business man and naval officer with massive political connections, served as a member of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and had a direct ear to the President. Shown from his perspective (in black and white photography) and Oppenheimer’s point of view (in technicolor), Strauss saw the potential for what these weapons could do for the future of the military for the United States and fought against Oppenheimer left and right to make sure that the “H Bomb” project went forward with or without Robert. In a career best performance, Downey Jr. brings a masterful level of menace to a man filled with jealousy over Oppenheimer’s accomplishments, all because he didn’t agree with his adversary’s cautionary personal opinions post the time of the drop of the atomic bombs in Japan. Downey’s superstar appeal is cleverly used to have the audience in the palm of his hands, only to tear every ounce of trust apart when you realize the personal destruction he has caused to Oppenheimer’s legacy, thus creating a sinister antagonist that represents not just the pettiness of one man, but of the many who are so power hungry, they don’t realize that they are just as dangerous as the bombs they want our country to create. The brilliance of Downey’s work also falls heavily on the shoulders of editor Jennifer Lame’s essential work as she takes these two opposing visual points of view and melds them together effortlessly to where you get the full picture as to just how low Strauss went to make sure Oppenheimer was a name he never had to worry about again.
Between its stellar supporting cast, incredible direction, rich screenplay, and exquisite technical crafts, Oppenheimer is a great film but it is taken to the next level with the deeply committed performance from Cillian Murphy. In his first lead role for Nolan, his longtime collaborator, Murphy expertly delivers a portrait of a man that is so smart that by the time his work is complete, and the rest of the world breaks him, he is left a shell of himself. Dozens of shots throughout the movie show a slender face attached to a pencil thin body that’s soul is deteriorating through every interrogation in his hearing (done by a devilishly good performance by Jason Clarke), or memory of the impact the bomb has had on the citizens of Japan. Even when he meets President Truman (Gary Oldman) and tells him that he feels like he has “blood on his hands,” Truman’s cold response shatters him, leaving a lasting impression on Murphy that lingers throughout the final act of the film. It’s a career-best performance for Murphy, and in this all encompassing role, he is able to showcase why he is a generational talent that should have more leading roles in films.
It is no secret to filmgoers by now that Christopher Nolan is obsessed with the concept of time, and uses it in almost every one of his films. And yes, telling the story of one man’s life over a three-hour film is enough of an exercise of time within itself, but what he does with it here is his most important use of his filmography. He looks at time, or in this case, Oppenheimer’s legacy, from his most cynical point of view yet, as he showcases how a man’s life and career can be demolished and rewritten in a matter of months if they don’t go along with those who aim to destroy the world. At the same time, it’s also about how a person can give so much to the world around them only for their achievements to be washed away as though they are treated like a war criminal. Nolan takes aim at the US government, world leaders, and the scientific community for letting Oppenheimer’s name get dragged through the mud so they can fill their pockets, grab more public and internal power, and continue to benefit off of something they won’t fully understand. This film is by no means a celebration of this historic achievement, and like Oppenheimer, there is no way to not feel hopeless and terrified about the world’s ongoing obsession with countries stockpiling nuclear weapons.
Oppenheimer is a film that will live shoulder to shoulder with other historical biopics like Lawrence of Arabia, The Insider, Malcolm X, and JFK that showcased an important moment or figure in history and had the presence of mind to ask the audience hard questions about humanity as they are walking out of the theater. Nolan, whose last three features explored the topics of human survival, World War II, and nuclear annihilation, brings all of those ideas together to create not only his best film since The Prestige but the best film of the year so far and an early contender for the best film of the decade.
Universal Pictures will release Oppenheimer only in theaters and IMAX on July 21.