‘Oppenheimer’ movie review: A strange, surreal, stirring saga from Nolan in his element 

Armed with a haunting Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan gives us his most personal and political film yet, that is fascinating as it is flawed

July 21, 2023 01:07 pm | Updated July 25, 2023 05:44 pm IST

Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss and Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in ‘Oppenheimer’

Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss and Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in ‘Oppenheimer’ | Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pic

Robert Angier wanted to perform the perfect magic trick, Dom Cobb wanted to live his perfect dream (literally), Joseph Cooper wanted to find a perfect planet; now, Christopher Nolan has made a biopic on the man who wanted to create the perfect bomb.

But let’s get this out of the way first; does the film’s main event, termed as a cinematic experience for the ages on IMAX, live up to its almost unbearable expectations? Well, yes and no. 

The prelude to the Trinity nuclear test in the New Mexico desert — the first detonation of the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan project — is built to a crescendo of such epic proportions that it’s impossible to not shudder and brace for impact in your seats. The anticipation is all the more eerie when you recall (and also hear) the famous words that Oppenheimer quotes from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds…”

But the explosion in isolation (just the Trinity one; Nolan makes the divisive decision not to show the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings) does not justify the hype, as hair-raising a visual achievement it may be. Instead, the filmmaker completely goes for the jugular and paralyses us with shock in a scene right after, when “the father of the atomic bomb” has to address a crowd of colleagues who are stomping their feet in rhythm, cheering the attacks on the Japanese cities. A traumatised ‘Oppie’ (as his friends call him) — now in full realisation of the horrors he has unleashed upon the planet — stammers his way through what is meant to be a victory jaunt, as he hallucinates the phantoms of his horrific creation that would change the course of history.

This, in essence, is what Nolan’s latest — a film he has seemingly always wanted to make — is about. Based on AmericanPrometheus (a 2005 biography by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin), Oppenheimer chronicles the life of the American theoretical physicist, who became the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II and invented the first nuclear weapon that would end the war in the Pacific.  

With help from composer Ludwig Göransson’s anxiety-inducing score, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s staggering use of 65-millimeter film, and editor Jennifer Lame’s frenetic frames, Nolan takes you deep into the mind (and all its tragic machinations) of a protagonist repelled by his own eminence and tortured by his futile attempt to advocate against further nuclear development.

His primary weapon of choice is Cillian Murphy, who has been around forever but still remains strangely unseen except in Nolan’s universe and his career-defining turn as Thomas Shelby. The Irishman in the role of Oppenheimer is a true casting coup (one of many in the film) with his gaunt face and haunting eyes tormenting you with every piercing gaze, glance and grimace. Here, he’s magnetic in the role of the scientist who bent the world to his will and whim for decades, until it finally stops revolving around him. The physical resemblance notwithstanding, Murphy captures Oppenheimer’s internal turmoil and external arrogance with some amount of immodest ease; we never quite understand him fully, but that’s precisely what Nolan wants. 

Oppenheimer (English)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, Gary Oldman, Benny Safdie, Casey Affleck, Tom Conti, David Dastmalchian
Duration: 180 minutes
Storyline: A look at the life of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was roped in to work on the top-secret Manhattan Project and develop the atomic bomb during World War II

But Oppenheimer’s sprawl both astounds and frustrates. Nolan, of course, complicates the chronology like only Nolan can; we are thrown head-first into different timelines — that switch between dazzling colour and black-and-white — representing both ‘fission’ and ‘fusion,’ two terms the director uses right at the beginning of the film, to indicate how energy is created and dissipated. 

From his beginnings in the 1920s as a genius student galvanized by the prospect of making breakthroughs in quantum mechanics, to teaching and collaborating with other prodigious minds at Berkeley, to embracing the leftist ideals that would later invigorate him to develop the bomb ahead of the Nazis, Nolan charts Oppenheimer’s early days in linear-enough fashion. The dialogues and debates bristle with a kinetic sort of energy that is palpable, and we remain invested in all the dizzying equations and exposition that should rightfully perplex, but somehow make sense.

Things then get heated. Oppenheimer quickly encounters a number of people who will have far-reaching ramifications on his life, such as nuclear physicist Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett well and truly owning his renaissance), the stern but supportive Lieutenant General Leslie Groves (a fantastic-as-usual Matt Damon), and the eventual hydrogen bomb inventor Edward Teller (Benny Safdie in a bit of a hard sell). He’s also juggling the two women who make and (nearly) break him; the incendiary psychiatrist and Communist Party member Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) with whom he has a steamy on-and-off romance, and his wife, the boozy Kitty (a supremely disdainful Emily Blunt who surely deserved more screen time).

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in  a scene from ‘Oppenheimer’

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in a scene from ‘Oppenheimer’ | Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

There’s a revolving army of other supporting characters too — some fragmented, some whole, none streamlined — sportingly essayed by an array of stars that reads like a who’s who list of Hollywood royalty; Kenneth Branagh as Danish physicist Niels Bohr (Oppenheimer’s mentor), Gary Oldman as President Harry S Truman (naturally stealing the show with one of the best scenes set in the Oval Office after the bomb is dropped), Tom Conti as a regretfully ponderous Albert Einstein (!) and Rami Malek in a small but frightfully important cameo.

It is Robert Downey Jr., though, who emerges as the film’s most prominent game-changer, and the Marvel superstar delivers the finest performance of his career as Atomic Energy Commission chair Lewis Strauss, who makes it his mission to dismantle Oppenheimer’s credibility and service to the United States government.

If that sounds like a lot to take in, it is. But this is where Nolan falters; the Strauss-Oppenheimer rivalry, fuelled by jealousy and humiliation, spirals into a full-blown revenge saga in the second half, primarily taking shape inside claustrophobic conference rooms populated with suits. From being an enigmatic origin story about one of the most legendary scientific minds in history, the film turns into part-courtroom battle, part-political drama, as Nolan tries to (or rather, lets us) decipher what Oppenheimer’s future legacy will be; it stifles more than it intrigues. Indeed, one of the rare times you crack a wry smile is when some US officials are ascertaining which Japanese cities to bomb, and one of them comments that he removed Kyoto from the list because his wife enjoyed their honeymoon there.

Still, the monumental world Nolan creates often results in an immersive experience that is not often witnessed in biopics. Even if some stretches play out way too long, Oppenheimer constantly reminds us that everyone quickly recovered from the perversion of war to accept the bomb; a burden that we will forever share with Robert.

Oppenheimer is currently running in theatres

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