Oppenheimer (2023)

Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’ explodes with greatness

The most devastating impact of a nuclear bomb is the fallout. Just ask J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who forever changed the world by championing man’s most destructive force then had to live with hands stained by the blood of 200,000 Japanese citizens. It’s hard to imagine how a mortal conscience could contemplate such a catastrophic event. No one but the man himself could know. But Christopher Nolan’s spectacular “Oppenheimer” offers a credible approximation by placing us inside the conflicted mind of a brilliant scientist who knew almost instantly that his insatiable love of quantum mechanics facilitated an invention that would forever strike fear in the hearts of mankind.

It’s hard to know where to begin in praising a film that pushes the boundaries of how far modern cinema can take you when entrusted to a visionary like Christopher Nolan. Be it acting, special effects, cinematography, or sound, he demands – and receives – the best his cast and crew have to offer. But I believe the core of this explosive movie is its previously unsung linchpin, Cillian Murphy. The “Peaky Blinders” star is magnificent, an immediate Oscar contender, in his uncanny ability to portray a man at war with himself, and to do so in such a heartfelt and empathetic manner.

His Oppenheimer seldom feels comfortable in his skin, even though he’s fully aware he’s always the smartest guy in the room. That dichotomy is a through line that seldom wavers as Nolan’s script seamlessly weaves key periods of Oppenheimer’s life into a near-flawless tapestry. At first, the repeated jumps in time and place are a bit disconcerting. But once you’ve succumbed to Nolan’s nonlinear strategy, you’re all in on a story that is equal parts triumph and tragedy.

The central locale is Los Alamos, New Mexico, the infamous self-contained city where Oppenheimer and the world’s most renowned physicists conceived, built and tested a weapon they knew had the potential to destroy the entire planet – by accident. It’s beyond chilling when Oppenheimer matter-of-factly opines that his $2 billion baby could ignite the entire atmosphere. The prospect is merely the price of doing business for Oppenheimer and his team. But for Gen. Leslie Groves, the commanding officer of the Manhattan Project, it evokes shockwaves that in the capable hands of Matt Damon reflect our own inescapable feelings of dread.

And it won’t be the last time Nolan preys on an overwhelming sense of unease in creating more than a few moral quandaries that expound upon the central theme of forging peace through devastation. Chief among them is Oppenheimer’s post-war nemesis, Lewis Strauss, a founding member of the Atomic Energy Commission. He’s played in a wondrous turn by an almost unrecognizable Robert Downey Jr., devouring every opportunity to inflict bureaucratic villainy on an American hero.

His scenes are predominantly shot in black and white, as he and his staff navigate a Senate hearing weighing his nomination as Eisenhower’s secretary of commerce. Essentially, Strauss loves the bomb to the point of vehemently lobbying for developing an even more potent hydrogen version. But Oppenheimer, and his increasingly guilty conscience, foresee the future and fear the implications of an escalating arms race. Considering this is the heyday of the Red Scare, Strauss isn’t the only politician eager to quash Oppenheimer’s premonition of doom. It starts with Harry Truman (a terrific Gary Oldman) and trickles down to a tribunal charged with putting Oppenheimer in his place via the ruthless grilling of special counsel Roger Robb (a solid Jason Clarke).

As he proved with “Dunkirk,” Nolan is a master at juggling place and time. He exhibits that same expertise, as we jump back and forth over a 30-year period from Washington, Los Alamos, San Francisco and Princeton University, where Oppenheimer meets up with the genius he hopes to surpass, Albert Einstein (Tom Conti). The back and forth is artfully executed, but the glue holding it together is Murphy, his hypnotic blue eyes providing a magnetic portal into the brain of a slightly mad scientist entrusted with nothing short of saving the world.

Murphy is outstanding, and his resemblance to the real Robert Oppenheimer is eerie. He appears in practically every scene and is tasked with expressing a spectrum of emotions, no small feat when fleshing out a figure famous for his unflinching stoicism. What I like most about his performance is his willingness to venture beyond merely playing the hero, reaching deep to unmask Oppenheimer’s myriad character flaws.

Chief among them, his casual readiness to cheat on his long-suffering wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), with Jean Tatlock, the woman who knew how to fuel Oppenheimer’s reactor. She’s played by Florence Pugh, frequently sans clothing, and it’s a gutsy bit of acting few actresses could pull off so confidently.

She’s more the rule than the exception in a cast that includes Rami Malek as the John Dean of the piece whose David Hill goes before the Senate committee to expose Oppenheimer’s denouncers for what they are, frauds. He’s joined by fellow Oscar winners Casey Affleck and Kenneth Branagh in a dazzling display of star power matched only by the gorgeous cinematography by Nolan regular, Hoyte van Hoytema. His camera work on a pivotal scene in which the test bomb, Trinity, is fired just before dawn (on July 16, 1945) in the New Mexican desert is a thing of beauty. But it’s also intentionally terrifying, as it jarringly demonstrates the sheer power generated through fission.

If there are nits to pick, they are with the film’s butt-numbing length (3 hours) and its irksome short shrift given the two women who shaped Oppenheimer into a purveyor of peace later in life. But it came at a huge cost to his credibility and reputation. Was he a card-carrying communist, as his critics claimed? Or was he merely a progressive scholar who sought to explore new possibilities? Nolan makes no bones in expressing his opinion. But politics aside, his “Oppenheimer” is a colossal achievement that deserves to be seen on the largest, loudest screen possible. Simply put, it’s da bomb.

Movie review


Rated: R for nudity, language, some sexuality

Cast: Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, Florence Pugh, Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke and Josh Hartnett

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writer: Christopher Nolan

Runtime: 3 hours

Where: On Peacock

Grade: A-

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