2023 | rated R | starring Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, David Kumholtz, Jason Clarke, Kenneth Branagh | directed by Christopher Nolan | 3h |
J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) is put in the public and political spotlight after the theoretical physicist is recruited by Army General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to build a weapon to end all wars and win an arms race against the Nazis. Setting up a lab in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Oppenheimer contends with political red tape, competing scientists, his own womanizing, charges of being a communist sympathizer and is haunted that his creation may blow up the world.
Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a biopic made like a thriller, a scientific procedural made like a horror movie and a political thriller made like an Oliver Stone movie. The director packs all these elements tightly into a driving, stylish, film that connects the film’s subject with a theme bigger than them – something few biopics do and all of them should. Oppenheimer is a masterclass in how to make this type of movie. At times it feels like Nolan is just flexing. Giving himself a challenge and martialing all of his filmmaking skills to turn dry science into urgent cinema.
For my money, Nolan has always been a better storyteller than director. Meaning, he comes up with a crackerjack premise and explores it beautifully, but he has his own distinct style and tends to force those stories through it. Some of his films are over-edited, creating artificial suspense by urgently cross-cutting between two unrelated things. Good pacing doesn’t just mean Go Fast and Nolan seems to always be on laying on the gas regardless of the structure of the story. I’m thinking of the ones that don’t quite succeed – Interstellar, The Dark Knight Rises, Tenent. And even when they don’t, they’re still entertaining. Oppenheimer is the opposite. It’s Nolan taking a story that could easily go lifeless in the hands of all but a very few directors, and makes it work through sheer filmmaking fortitude. We have a riveting story, inventively told, with Nolan using every technical skill in a filmmakers arsenal to do so. The sound, the editing, the color pallet, the music, the performances, all sing in harmony. It’s movie magic in the most literal sense.
The film is divided loosely into 3 parts. I say loosely because they bleed into each other beautifully, doubling back and forth on each other with flashbacks, flashforwards and non-linear puzzlebox storytelling. Hints are dropped here and there and expanded on later, letting the audience put the pieces together mostly themselves. In the first section, we follow Oppenheimer (Nolan regular Murphy elevated to worthy leading man status) getting his PhD and building a department at Cal Tech. In a running theme, theory can only take him so far and he pairs with a fellow department head (Josh Hartnett) building models to experiment with the physics. The film becomes a whose who of 1940s era physics academia, with Oppenheimer crossing paths with Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), Werner Heisenberg and Neils Bohr (Kenneth Branagh). It’s here where we follow Oppy’s romance with first wife Jean (a terrific Florence Pugh). Behind all of it is the spectre of communism and Jean’s communist affiliations haunt Oppenheimer for years to come.
The 2nd act is the meat in the burger, focusing on the creation of the Los Alamos lab, the town and the Manhattan project. This is top shelf procedural cinema that should join the ranks of David Fincher greats like Zodiac. This film scratches the itch that more recent procedurals, like She Said and Spotlight, didn’t. It’s actually interested in the mechanics of the work, and in making us interested too. We meet his most steadfast wife and defender Kitty (Emily Blunt, who gets a show-stopper scene) and see the creation of Los Alamos, hear the logic behind it and see the physicists debating atomic bombs vs hydrogen bombs. Nolan moves things along at a quick clip without trampling over the performances or dialog. Yet around every corner is another familiar face. Popping up for a scene or two are the likes of Tony Goldwyn, Rami Malick, Jack Quaid, Alex Wolff, Matthew Modine, Dane DeHaan and Casey Affleck, Alden Ehrenreich and Gary Oldman.
The third act is where the film might gain or lose audiences. After spending 2 hours building up to the creation of the bomb, Nolan takes a hard right turn into Oliver Stone, JFK, territory, making a political conspiracy film. Much of Oppenheimer is devoted to the usual communist witch hunt all movies set in the 40s and 50s are focused on (while never dealing with where this paranoia came from in the first place). It’s a trope at this point and the least interesting element of the film. But here it, like many of it’s other tropes, folds into the story tightly. Much of the film is framed around a kangaroo senate hearing in a modest congressional back room. The reasons for it and how it came about are revealed, but alongside Oppenheimer for most of the journey senator Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) who along with Damon’s general, represents the governmental apparatus meddling into science, both by hindering it’s progress with political theater and by using it for it’s own ends. Nolan ultimately leans on politicians, not the bomb or the scientists that made it, as the real villains. Glorious.
You can argue that the film dangerously approaches, or becomes, more about how it’s about than what it’s about. I can see people being detached by its style instead of absorbed by it. Truth be told, like many Nolan films, it’s not as smart as it think it is. I came away not really learning anything new about physics, Oppenheimer or the time period. But I was absorbed by it. And as a standard-setter for procedural bio-pics, it inspired the imagination.
All of this takes the events of the film, extrapolate it into a worldwide theme and wrap it all up in a nice little bow. Oppenheimer will be hard to beat for my favorite ending of the year. It’s big, bold, ambitious and fits the story. It’s Nolan taking moldy old story tropes of communist witch hunts, academic theory and anti-nuclear warnings and shocking them back to life in a visceral exciting way. Oppenheimer is exactly how to make this kind of movie.