When you think of Christopher Nolan, you don’t think of activism or character studies. With Oppenheimer, he’s putting forth an epic version of both. In crafting a biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the nuclear bomb, Nolan has opted to make this a tale of not just one of the 20th century’s most important men, but a missive that nuclear warfare will eventually doom us all, much like the weapon’s development ultimately doomed the man himself. It’s as much a thriller as a drama, albeit with the filmmaker’s typical flair. If he was ever going to do his JFK, this is it. It’s also a riveting experience and one of the best things I’ve seen all year.
Oppenheimer is an epic character study as well as a dire warning. This engrossing experience builds to an endgame that places no less than the fate of humanity almost at death’s door. It’s heady stuff for summer cinema, but in Nolan’s hands, the urgency is never ignored, but the riveting nature of it makes for one of is most unique works to date. Frankly, given the choice between more work like this and more explorations of the action genre, I’ll take ten more Oppenheimer types before he goes back to Tenet. We’ve seen him master action. Now, he’s mastered the biopic and character study.
This is the story of American scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) and his central role in the development of the atomic bomb. The first act introduces us to the narrative threads we’ll be following. In one, he’s at the start of his career, plagued by visions and seen as a promising but mediocre student. His travels to Europe to meet some of the great scientific minds of his time set him on a course to bring theoretical physics to the United States. In the next thread, he’s a professor at Berkley, recruited by soon to be General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to become the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II, shepherding the Manhattan Project, which created the atomic bomb. The other thread sees him in the aftermath, butting heads with politician Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), which would eventually lead to the hearing that had his high level security clearance revoked, a black eye for him and more or less the end of his career.
As we follow these threads, we see tons of his colleagues throughout the years, as well as several historical figures of note. Even more importantly, we meet the two most important women in his life. There’s the troubled Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) who he wooed early on in his career and would have an affair with, as well as his wife Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt), who wouldn’t idly stand by while her husband played the role of historical martyr. The third act also sees Strauss’ congressional confirmation hearing intertwined with Oppenheimer’s security clearance hearing. There, Nolan does his best JFK homage, making this a bit of a paranoid thriller, too, one that packs a wallop.
This cast turns in the finest ensemble work in any Nolan film to date. At the center of it is Cillian Murphy, in nearly every scene and spectacular. The haunted nature of his performance is a crowning achievement for his career. Nolan entrusts him with the weight of this enormous role and the end result pays major dividends. Also excellent is Robert Downey Jr., shedding the Tony Stark performance once and for all. It’s a powerful turn that could easily win him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor if all goes right for him this season. It’s stunning work. Florence Pugh makes an impact in a smaller yet crucial and emotionally/physically naked part, while Matt Damon is rock solid. The other real notable major turn is by Emily Blunt, who comes up big towards the end with a sequence that features the best work of her career. The rest of the epic supporting cast includes Casey Affleck, Michael Angarano, Macon Blair, Kenneth Branagh, Jason Clarke, Tom Conti, James D’Arcy, David Dastmalchian, Dane DeHaan, Christopher Denham, Alden Ehrenreich, Tony Goldwyn, Josh Hartnett, David Krumholtz, Rami Malek, Matthew Modine, Gary Oldman, Josh Peck, Jack Quaid, Benny Safdie, Matthias Schweighöfer, Olivia Thirlby, Alex Wolff, and more.
Filmmaker Christopher Nolan is not just at the height of his storytelling powers, but at his angriest and most activated. Along with his returning collaborators in cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and composer Ludwig Göransson, this is a technical marvel. Van Hoytema shoots the hell out of the movie, while Göransson’s score may well win him another Oscar (to say nothing of Nolan’s chance to take home the statue for directing as well). Nolan gives his actors a ton to work with, putting forth a script that’s his talkiest to date. At the same time, he directs this with a massive amount of urgency. In telling the story of how developing the atomic bomb not just destroyed a complicated yet good man, but could quite likely bring about the destruction of everything, Nolan is activated. His passion shines through, even if this has some colder and clinical elements. At the same time, this is among his most emotional works, both in front of and behind the camera.
Oscars are potentially coming for this flick. At the minimum, a ton of nominations are likely in the card for Oppenheimer. Best Picture, Best Director (for Nolan), Best Actor (for Murphy), Best Supporting Actor (for Downey Jr.), Best Supporting Actress (for Blunt), and Best Adapted Screenplay (also for Nolan) highlight the potential above the line forces on display. Below the line, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography (for Van Hoytema), Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Original Score (for Göransson), and Best Visual Effects could add to the totals. This film could easily be an Academy Award juggernaut if the season goes a certain way.
Oppenheimer is an often stunning achievement by Nolan and company. Pairing this with Barbie (reviewed here) might be tonal whiplash, but having seen both films, Barbenheimer is a cinematic treat. Watching Nolan at the height of his powers, alongside this cast, is a treat. Gird yourself for a depressing yet urgent message, as only this storyteller can. The movie is spectacular, even if you won’t leave it with a smile on your face.