Michael Lee explores Christopher Nolan’s story of American scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his role in the development of the atomic bomb.
Nolan has packed this historical biopic, with more than enough TNT to keep audiences on their toes from start to finish. Nolan has become a filmmaker like no other today, a creator of worlds, who maintains an unparalleled vision and artistry whilst getting major studio backing. He invites audiences into a complex world of big ideas and ignites them with visceral drama and explosive action. And Oppenheimer is the culmination of a career built on Nolan’s propensity to do just that, whilst pushing the boundaries of storytelling as a form. Right from the beginning Nolan launches for the stratosphere, as we’re ingratiated with the complexities of the father of the Atomic Bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer.
As a film Oppenheimer is paradoxical in its cinematic nature. It’s a taut character study, and a clock-ticking thriller as explosive as the big bang. Ultimately, you can’t escape the blast radius of Nolan’s storytelling, the scale of it, it’s colossal, it’s everything, it’s the kind of magic that drops jaws and mesmerizes eyeballs.
The core focus of the film follows the visionary Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), a Jewish scientist who’s in a race against time to build a nuclear weapon before the Nazis. But his efforts are threatened by his chaotic emotional nature, and ties to the communist party. Oppenheimer wages a war with himself and his critics as he struggles to build the bomb.
Nolan’s vision is brought to life by his comrade in arms, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, and together they create an operatic montage of pure cinema. Gliding cameras traverse radiant landscapes at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Incredible atomic particles smash and fuse bringing Oppenheimer’s kaleidoscopic thought process to life in a way that’s tactical and visceral. The Trinity test sequence is a notable highlight; it’s a visual spectacle that exemplifies the unmatched emotional power and audacity of practical effects.
Nolan cleverly uses two timelines, contrasting the rise of Oppenheimer the genius, with the public fall of the older Oppenheimer who believes nuclear weapons are a threat to humanity. As the film builds momentum there’s a confluence between these two Oppenheimers, thus confirming he’s both men at once. The film’s visual structure and editing reflect the paradox of Oppenheimer’s life, as both the genius and the sinner.
Cillian Murphy sets the screen ablaze, with a ferocious and intimate performance, and his face is a gateway into another reality. It’s perhaps the single greatest performance in any Nolan film, and a testament to Murphy’s devotion to his craft. Murphy is complimented by an ensemble as varied as the periodic table of elements. Robert Downey Jr. is electric as the charming and acrimonious antagonist Lewis Strauss. And Florence Pugh excels as the seductive and explosive commie love interest Jean Tatlock. Each actor adds to the frenetic and chaotic mix of personalities that orbit around Oppenheimer. Other notable players include Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Gary Oldman, Matthew Modine, Kenneth Branagh, and Benny Safdie among others.
It’s a film about Paradox, and it’s as much about the beauty and celebration of science as it’s about the horrors caused by it, and a potent reminder of the complex and contradictory natures of human beings.
Oppenheimer is in cinemas from 21st July 2023.