Oppenheimer review: Christopher Nolan’s powerful, timely masterpiece deserves the biggest screens

Oppenheimer review

Oppenheimer, much like the brilliant scientist it portrays, reaches a pivotal juncture in history, standing out in a cinematic landscape dominated by big-budget Hollywood productions drawn from corporate intellectual property. In a refreshing departure from the norm, Oppenheimer is an unapologetically cerebral film, replete with exceptional actors embodying real-life figures, a true story replete with illuminating historical details that many viewers will encounter for the first time. Despite its grounding in reality, the film exudes a grandeur befitting Christopher Nolan’s renowned IMAX screen.

The movie’s title makes its focus clear: J. Robert Oppenheimer, the eminent “father of the atomic bomb.” For a substantial portion of its three-hour duration, Nolan immerses the audience within Oppenheimer’s prodigious intellect, offering glimpses into the world as perceived by this theoretical physicist. The narrative often segues into mesmerizing visions of subatomic particles and celestial infernos. However, Oppenheimer also bears the hallmarks of a memory play, or perhaps an exhaustive biography reshuffled and presented out of chronological order. Even more so than Nolan’s previous film, “Tenet,” Oppenheimer dances through time, gracefully transitioning between various events spanning decades, elucidating connections that are logical but far from linear.

Oppenheimer review

Cillian Murphy shoulders the demanding task of personifying the central figure within this universe, serving as the constant amid the ever-shifting tides of science and history. Murphy, a longtime collaborator with Nolan, has often been cast in pivotal supporting roles in the director’s projects, such as the menacing Scarecrow in “Batman Begins” and the primary target in the dream heist of “Inception.” While he has consistently showcased his acting prowess in leading roles elsewhere, most notably in the long-running Netflix crime series “Peaky Blinders,” Oppenheimer finally permits him to bring this facet of his skillset to the forefront. Murphy’s portrayal of Oppenheimer, his face etched with contemplation as he navigates the 20th century’s most intricate challenges, is as riveting as the film’s depictions of atomic explosions, deserving of the grandest cinematic canvas.

Just as Oppenheimer’s monumental achievements were the product of collaboration with other brilliant minds, Murphy is complemented by an ensemble of exceptional actors. Matt Damon infuses General Leslie Groves, the military leader of the Manhattan Project, with his trademark movie-star charisma, effectively concealing his underlying motivations beneath gruff charm.

Oppenheimer review

Robert Downey Jr. assumes the role of Lewis Strauss, Oppenheimer’s rival for control over postwar nuclear policy, leveraging his formidable acting prowess to carve out a significant presence in the film. Strauss’ strategic meetings during the contentious 1959 Senate hearings over his cabinet nomination provide a departure from Oppenheimer’s direct perspective, marked by black-and-white color grading and Downey’s dominating screen presence. Downey, one of the most influential American movie stars of the 2010s, had been absent from the limelight for some time. Witnessing him deliver a substantial big-screen performance once more is a rare opportunity, particularly considering the meta-context of Downey and Nolan, both of whom played pivotal roles in the ascent of the modern superhero blockbuster, collaborating on a film exploring the ambivalence of an inventor towards his monumental creation.

Among the standouts in Oppenheimer’s stellar ensemble, David Krumholtz, known for his poignant performance in Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt” on Broadway, assumes a pivotal role as physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi. Krumholtz brings a valuable perspective as a Jewish character in a film centered around a Jewish protagonist (played by an Irish actor) who is fervently determined to develop the atomic bomb before the Nazis can. Rabi, however, adopts a more skeptical stance: “I don’t want decades of physics to culminate in a bomb.”

Oppenheimer review

Albert Einstein, a vocal critic of the ostensibly anti-Nazi atomic bomb, is portrayed by Tom Conti with the demeanor of a venerable legend who has observed the world transform due to his seminal achievement, the theory of relativity, in a manner he does not favor. By the film’s conclusion, Oppenheimer will share Einstein’s sentiment. After all, the atomic bomb was ultimately not deployed against the Nazis but was used to devastate Japanese civilians.

The Manhattan Project was predominantly a male domain, a characteristic recurrent in many of Nolan’s previous works. Amid the critiques directed at the accomplished director throughout his career, one of the most enduring is his penchant for relegating female characters to the roles of “dead wives” whose spectral presence merely motivates the male protagonists. However, Emily Blunt’s portrayal of Kitty Oppenheimer defies this trope, endowing the character with vitality in the midst of the global crises of the 1930s and 1940s. Far from conforming to the archetype of a “devoted wife,” Kitty is unreserved in expressing her vexations with motherhood and her disillusionment with politics. In their scenes together, Blunt proves to be an excellent counterpart to Murphy, grounding him when he drifts into the ether and rekindling his determination when he appears resigned to let history run its course.

The film introduces another significant female character in the form of Jean Tatlock, portrayed by Florence Pugh, a rising star whose presence alongside more seasoned cast members might seem incongruous. Nevertheless, Pugh infuses Oppenheimer with a potent blend of sensuality and politics, two aspects of life that have often been overlooked in Nolan’s previous films. Tatlock was a committed communist and attended several party meetings alongside Oppenheimer, who, distressed by the rise of genocidal Nazism, sought to support the anti-fascist Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.

Oppenheimer review

The film’s attention to political history imparts a contemporary resonance to its narrative. Oppenheimer, a summer blockbuster, features characters engaging in fervent discussions on the significance of labor unions and anti-fascist activism, coinciding with real-life labor union strikes within Hollywood. In a symbolic nod to these events, the film’s stars left the glamorous premiere as the SAG-AFTRA strike commenced. While viewers might anticipate the climax to revolve around the Trinity Test at Los Alamos (indeed, a spectacular sequence), the final hour delves into the closed-door hearing of 1954 when Oppenheimer’s security clearance was revoked due to his associations with communists. These scenes represent the broader McCarthyite era, illustrating how, despite the Allied victory over fascism, the use of Oppenheimer’s atomic bomb empowered reactionary forces at home to betray the very individuals responsible for their triumph.

Oppenheimer masterfully melds content with form. The film navigates intricate subjects such as quantum mechanics and political history, challenging viewers who may not consider themselves experts on these matters. Nevertheless, Oppenheimer expounds on these concepts in innovative ways, eschewing the conventional exposition dumps of “Inception” or the enigmatic complexity of “Tenet.” In a poignant scene, Oppenheimer elucidates quantum physics to Kitty, describing how all of existence is constructed from individual atoms, interconnected by forces that render matter perceptibly solid despite its inherently dynamic nature. Subsequently, Kitty underscores the fragility of existence by recounting her second husband’s fate, a union organizer who perished while combatting fascists in Spain. Her life, seemingly stable, was irrevocably altered by a single, minuscule bullet. In 1954, Opp.

Here’s the trailer: