The Most Thought-Provoking Film of the Year
Oppenheimer asks us to look towards the stars, the future, and beyond. After Tenet, I had a lot of questions about whether Christopher Nolan had lost his touch. His choice to pursue the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer was a surprise. Yet this film proves that great filmmakers do not lose their touch. Even against a filmography that includes Memento, The Dark Knight, and Inception, he has created one of his finest works as he takes on this journey to where we were asked to look.
Ambitious is a word that can always apply to Christopher Nolan. No film in his filmography is ordinary in its approach to its characters or story. This three-hour biopic moves at an excellent pace. They shot the movie in two manners, one part in black and white to show objective scenes and everything in color to show Oppenheimer’s point of view. These are some of the best-looking black-and-white shots I have ever seen; they are gorgeous on the screen. Out of the four films that Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema have worked on, this is their best collaboration. So much powerful visual language tells so many stories on their own. On top of that, the film does not move linearly and opens with two different timelines.
A Man of Emotion
Even more striking is the emotions worked into the film. Nolan has received a reputation as a filmmaker whose movies tend to lack any emotion and are usually more cold. Yet he has materialized a tangible connection between character and audience that shows how he has been able to grow as a director and writer. His screenplay based on American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, is complex and masterful. It is a film filled with much dialogue and men talking, but it doesn’t fail to be anything less than gripping. The movie explains that paradoxes are a crucial component of quantum physics, and paradoxes and contradictions built the man Oppenheimer was.
Cillian Murphy is a force as J. Robert Oppenheimer. His career has had many notable performances, and this will go down as his greatest. Nolan called Oppenheimer one of the most important men in the history of the world, and Murphy exemplifies that as it is one of the year’s best performances. His ego and intellect are entirely on display. He can often be the most intelligent man in the room, but his arrogance makes him look over too many flaws. It’s through those big blue eyes of his that he creates the haunted man that Oppenheimer becomes. His sins leave him a shell of the egotistical genius he once was.
The Starting Point
Oppenheimer’s story begins with him working on his studies across Europe that involve brief encounters with Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) and Werner Heisenberg (Matthias Schweighöfer). These short encounters help set the spark for the knowledge he seeks. Feeling homesick he realizes he needs to bring quantum physics to the United States.
The second timeline takes place a few years after the end of the war where Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), is vying for a spot in the presidential cabinet. His relationship with Oppenheimer has put his appointment in jeopardy by the Senate. As an antagonistic force, he is electrifying on screen. The vitriol and greed that he represents just flow through every word he speaks. Downey Jr. said he was worried that the would have lost a step after 10 years as the MCU’s Iron Man, but he has ended up with what may be his best work.
Oppenheimer’s Love Life, and More
Oppenheimer makes his home at the University of California, Berkley, lecturing to a quickly growing class that ropes him into exploring the Communist Party. He tends to be a womanizer at gatherings, getting together with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). At a future party, he meets his future wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), who is married to another man. His connections to the party and the people who are a part of it put his loyalty in question at various points.
Strangely enough, one of the most fascinating scenes in this film is its sex scene. Nolan does it in his style, which works perfectly. One of the silliest film criticisms is that a sex scene is always unnecessary, but this one proves they most definitely are not. The type of relationship that Oppenheimer had with women is one of his many flaws. The raw emotions captured are powerful in the context of what it all means to him.
A Collection of Talent
Regardless of his ties to communism, Leslie Groves Jr. (Matt Damon) places him as the head of the Manhattan Project, emphasizing the need to beat the Nazis in the race toward creating an atomic bomb. Together they recruit any scientist they can get their hands on who hasn’t already been recruited by the Nazis.
This film unites one of the biggest casts ever in terms of talent and recognition. Blunt, Rami Malek, Dane DeHaan, and Benny Safdie are just a handful among this extraordinary group. No matter how small their role is, everyone delivers an excellent performance. Performances that, in many other movies, would be the best. Sometimes, the movie will keep revealing a-list actors like a magician with a rabbit and a hat. My personal favorite belongs to Josh Hartnett, who continues his acting comeback and does not shrink in his biggest film yet. He does a great job showing warmth as a friend and the coldness to be a critic.
There is one character who Nolan introduces in an almost horror-like fashion. A slow build-up and a hidden face that only becomes scarier when Groves tells stories about them: this character’s scene is brief but no less impactful than any other. How he speaks is so effortlessly from a place of power and control that it makes everyone in the room feel much smaller. The reveal of who plays this character only increases the horror aspect.
The CGI-Less Experience
Pursuing practical effects to capture the nuclear explosion pays off big time. This awe-inspiring scene is impossible to take your eyes off. Oppenheimer can’t either, being one of many to take off their protective eyewear to see the birth of his life’s works plainly. Pure power shakes the world both on screen and in a theater.
The realization and fallout of his actions culminate in one of the best-directed scenes of Nolan’s career. The creative choice to not show any of the actual devastation caused by these bombs works exceptionally to create an unsettling moment. Oppenheimer is detached from these faraway places, so the way he processes it is all so striking. With the rise of Ludwig Göransson’s magnificent score, we see straight through Oppenheimer’s own eyes into the humanity he sees that he has wrought destruction.
The sound design of this movie does occasionally cause dialogue to be difficult to hear, but it is much better than Nolan’s past films, as this is the one where being so loud is necessary. In that sense, the score can be beautiful, daunting, and emotional at the same time.
Through various testimonies from colleagues for an aggressive committee, we see every aspect of a man’s life picked apart. Roger Robb (Jason Clarke) led the prosecution, digging for any shortcomings that could destroy whatever credibility Oppenheimer may have left. They are determined to show that he has betrayed his country and to remove his security access, as he becomes an outspoken critic of atomic weapons. The transformation of the film into an intense legal drama increases the tension, and so many pieces of the story we have been told fall into place. It’s a fiery final 30-40 minutes to close this fantastic film and serves as a place for us also to judge who Oppenheimer was.
Oppenheimer is the most thought-provoking and important film of the year and recent memory. A riveting biopic that dares us to learn about the man who changed the world.