‘Oppenheimer’ Movie Review: “A Haunting and Beautiful Biopic”
Right from the opening scene of Oppenheimer, it’s clear that this epic 3-hour biopic is done in a way that only director Christopher Nolan could do. As we watch young J Robert Oppenheimer stare off at puddles of rainwater, the director also gives us a glimpse at the inside of his mind. The theoretical physicist sees the microscopic in everyday life, with a constant fascination about the world and its workings. In just these first few minutes, Nolan manages to envelop the viewer into the world and perspective of the titular character. Oppenheimer has all the makings of a classic Christopher Nolan movie, from its non-linear narrative, fast-paced and witty dialogue, haunting score, and some genuinely captivating visuals that reflect the inner turmoil of its main character.
You would think that because Nolan plays into what everyone already expects from his films, Oppenheimer is lesser for it. However, it’s precisely the reason why the film is so incredible. Primarily based on the book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin, the acclaimed director takes a stab at one of the most influential figures in history. The father of the Atomic Bomb has a life story that’s stranger and more compelling than fiction, and it’s clear that Nolan understands this.
There are also the creative choices in how Nolan tells the story, separating the film between Oppenheimer’s life and perspective (shot in color) and the fallout and consequences of the character’s choices in scenes he’s not involved in (in black & white). It’s all an incredibly compelling way to tell the complex history of Oppenheimer’s fall from grace in the public eye, and Nolan’s script and direction do it so as not to confuse the viewer.
Oppenheimer relies just as much on its stacked cast as on Nolan’s direction. Thankfully, this is, undoubtedly, Nolan’s best ensemble yet. Cillian Murphy is the apparent standout playing the titular character, bringing the vulnerability seen in various archival media to new light in a performance that will surely define his career. The fact that this is the first lead role for Murphy in a Nolan film didn’t deter the actor, either. With each significant chapter of Oppie’s life, Murphy shows us a different side of the man with subtle changes in performance. The decades-spanning story is intensely brought to life by the actor, and his performance is only elevated by his just as talented peers.
Robert Downey Jr.’s Lewis Strauss is the connecting thread to the later low points of Oppenheimer’s life, almost being his own lead in the black & white portions of the film. Known for his usually exuberant and physical performances in the MCU for most of his career, Downey uses this film to show that he can be just as engaging in a much more subdued role. As a hopeful and hungry politician, Strauss is unassuming but, at the same time, has a dangerous aura to him that only Downey could achieve. The actor’s performance in this film almost makes him feel underused up to this point.
Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Benny Safdie, Jason Clarke, Alden Ehrenreich, Tom Conti, and many more bring their A-Game to Oppenheimer. Each serves a distinct purpose that still shines, no matter how small their screen time. Throughout all Nolan’s epic sense of storytelling, the director still manages to convey the intense implications of Oppenheimer’s work on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in stunning detail.
Much of Oppenheimer can be boiled down to “men sitting in a room talking.” However, thanks to the incredible technical prowess of the film, these conversations become even more compelling than they already are. With an astonishing score by Ludwig Gorranson and breathtaking cinematography by Hoyte Van Hotema, the film knows how to engross you in whatever intense political or technical conversations are being had. Everything at Los Alamos feels like an intense race against time. Moreover, Nolan manages to convey the dialogue, process, and people involved in the project in an approachable way without losing any of the nuances.
Every aspect of Oppenheimer’s production works in tandem to create a beautiful and haunting picture. Nolan delicately handles the dark implication of Oppenheimer and his team’s creation just as well, too. Instead of extrapolating or creating forced drama, the experienced director shows his understanding of the real-life stakes that drive the film’s tension. The consequences of Oppenheimer’s creation are thoroughly explored, and the inner struggle the physicist has with himself practically makes Nolan’s biopic a horror film at multiple points with incredible editing.
The film’s stakes go beyond the consequences of creating a new type of weapon. Oppenheimer’s political past and relationships with people like Jean Tatlock (in a mesmerizing performance from Florence Pugh) threaten to tear his life apart as the film jumps forward in time. The non-linear storytelling makes this interrogation of Oppenheimer in the flash-forwards much more challenging to watch. Christopher Nolan weaves genres, filmmaking styles, and tones effortlessly, making the life story of J Robert Oppenheimer one of the most captivating to watch on the big screen this year.
There are so many moving parts to Oppenheimer, and Nolan can’t help but put some more of his trademark twist and turns or end-of-movie-reveals. This time around, it’s a bit of a struggle for the director, as a historical account leaves little room for twists and turns. At the heart of Nolan’s newest mystery is a conversation between Oppenheimer and Einstein. Shown towards the beginning of the film, viewers are left to wonder what was discussed between them until the very end of the film. Nolan tries to convey the suspense of what was said by Downey’s Strauss throughout the film. However, it’s not something that makes the film any more interesting than the actual accounts and history already make it. Because of this, Oppenheimer falters only ever so slightly.
Overall, Nolan’s newest blockbuster is arguably one of his best. Oppenheimer feels like a culmination of all the director’s filmography. After playing the background for most of Nolan’s works, Cillian Murphy finally made it to the front and center in a performance that will not soon be forgotten. A technical marvel and an extremely powerful, incredible true story work to make this movie the best of the year so far. It also demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. – Ernesto Valenzuela
Oppenheimer is Now Playing in Theaters