Oppenheimer is a character study as epic about the father of the atomic bomb. It is an anti-war drama about a man who gets, and took, a lot of the blame, not only for what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also for the escalation of weapons of mass destruction. Christopher Nolan, a director who has no interest in making anything small, has made a movie on the scale of a summer blockbuster, that is focused on ego, creation and guilt.
Despite images of explosions, the most haunting visual is the title character’s face as he contemplates what he has done. Though it runs a whopping 174 minutes (not including the end credits), Oppenheimer doesn’t drag. Its fast pace, compelling subject matter and the intensity of its tone keep things moving. It is an impressive cinematic achievement. However, these same elements make for an exhausting experience. While I never thought it was too long, it sometimes felt like a little too much. Granted, that may be intentional.
The story jumps through time, from J. Robert Oppenheimer as a young academic to him as a university professor to heading the Manhattan Project to his post-war years, where he is attacked, from within as well as without, for the choices he made. There are also two marriages, but those are mostly to flesh out his personal life a bit and don’t really amount to much. There is a lot of talking in this movie. Oppenheimer talks to his wives, his colleagues, his friends and his bosses. Some of the conversations are about physics, some are about politics or philosophy, some are about the logistics of the bomb and its aftermath. All of them are a look into this man’s psyche. As a biopic/historical drama, it is good. As a peek into the headspace of a man who did something remarkable that led to the deaths of tens of thousands, it is fascinating.
Nolan wrote the screenplay (based on the 2005 biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin) but, while the writing is engaging, this is undoubtedly a triumph of direction. Usually, IMAX film cameras are used to capture action, explosions and awesome special effects. Obviously, Oppenheimer does contain a big explosion. Still, this isn’t about war. We never see anything even resembling fighting. This is a story of intellectual battles, discovery and introspection. There are a lot of shots of Oppenheimer thinking. Nolan and director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema force us to consider what, exactly, was going through J. Robert Oppenheimer’s head as he went down a path that he did not know for sure wouldn’t lead to total destruction.
The mystery of Oppenheimer, from his excitement to produce the bomb to the guilt he would later feel toward what he had unleashed, is where the tension comes from. Most viewers will come in knowing at least parts of this story. There are no surprises here. Yet, even with no action and so much talking, this feels like a thriller. Nolan keeps us outside of his subject, leaving us to figure him out as we stare into his eyes.
Cillian Murphy, as the star, shows us a man always in his own head. He loves physics, he loves doing something no one else has been able to accomplish before. It is a great performance because he trusts the audience to be as captivated by the character as Nolan clearly was. Murphy is quiet and mannered, rarely showing genuine emotion. Still, by the end, I felt like I understood J. Robert Oppenheimer. Sometimes, geniuses do incredible things. Sometimes, they do terrible things. He did both. And, based on the way he is presented here, he knew it.
Christopher Nolan is an ambitious filmmaker who makes very large movies. A biography of a scientist doesn’t necessarily seem like a fit for his sensibilities. He makes it fit and not in a way that feels awkward. Oppenheimer is both an oddly intimate character study and a massive, gorgeously shot, epic about a crucial period in American history. It is a pretty wonderful feat and definitely one that should be seen on the largest screen possible.
4½ out of 5
Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer
Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer
Matt Damon as Leslie Groves
Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss
Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock
Jason Clarke as Roger Robb
Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr
Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan