It struck me watching Christopher Nolan’s masterful three-hour epic telling of the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, long labeled the Father of the Atomic Bomb, that this is a period piece with an exclamation point for audiences today.
In the 1940s, Oppenheimer and a team of brilliant scientists traveled into the unknown to create the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, the A-bomb, but with the noble reason that its use could be an end to war, its explosive and wide-ranging ability to tear apart vast areas of the planet would be used ultimately as a deterrent, not an endgame. It would be used against Nazi Germany in World War II, an answer to Hitler’s own demented vision of world dominance and annihilation. But anytime you are doing something never done in the whole history of humanity, there is risk, moral questions, unintended consequences and the possibility of building a monster even Dr. Frankenstein could not have imagined — or stopped.
So I was thinking about the current discussions of AI — its potential for good and life-changing breakthroughs but also, as scientists and its Silicon Valley creators have been warning recently, a new gadget (as the A-bomb initially was nicknamed) whose use could careen out of control and destroy us all. This is no mere science fiction, and neither was getting “the bomb,” which did the thing for which it was built and had the effect of ending World War II (but after Germany surrendered) when it was dropped twice on Japan in August 1945, first Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. The result for humanity there was devastating, but it turned out it was just the beginning.
Nolan is simply an exceptional filmmaker whose cinematic sensibility is steeped in the classics but merged with modern sensibilities and tools to make one-of-a-kind visual experiences with real ideas about the world around us. With Oppenheimer, his interest is in the complex mind of J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy in his sixth collaboration with Nolan but first as the lead), a complicated but brilliant physicist tasked with leading the Manhattan Project, the secret effort to create the nuclear bomb, a weapon so powerful it could be used to end war forever — in the right hands. Oppenheimer, a man with leftist politics even accused of being a communist, knew he could bring all the elements together but also — as we see his story played out in an unusual first-person approach in Nolan’s stunning screenplay based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin — a moral conundrum gathering in his head as he begins to envision the dangers beyond a short-term use of a weapon that could — and did — spark an arms race and a new world order that changed us forever.
Nolan’s movie is set right at the start but serves as a fascinating glimpse into those who had it in them to pull off this remarkable feat but also had to live with its consequences, something we all have to live with today in a shaky time where the nuclear threat has sadly not gone away but only brought the doomsday clock closer to midnight than ever. How many times lately have we heard Putin try to make its use in Ukraine a possibility, even pointing out the Americans have been the only ones to ever use it — so far?
It is not a spoiler to reveal that Nolan ultimately chose not to show the horrific results of what happened the first time the Americans dropped that A-bomb over Japan. Instead we see it played out through Oppenheimer’s haunted eyes, a far more effective and chilling approach, achieved with some superior special effects married to music (Ludwig Goransson did the pulsating score) and superb, ear-rattling sound design. This ultimately is not an action spectacle or bomb-dropping war movie but a very human one in which its title character faces a moral dilemma shared by few in history, if anyone.
Oppenheimer’s story is told in non-linear style, shuffling back and forth to different periods in time, his own tale shot in color and told in first person, the later trials explaining how it all happened from various points of view shot in striking 65MM black-and-white film — particularly Robert Downey Jr.’s cagey Lewis Strauss, who was the founding commissioner of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and later a Cabinet appointee as Secretary of Commerce in the Eisenhower administration.
Although they are two key players here, Nolan has made a very dense film with a very large and starry cast — three recent Best Actor Oscar winners have small supporting roles, if that gives you an idea — the kind we used to see in ambitious Hollywood films by great directors but not so much lately, at least on this intellectual scale. Matt Damon is excellent as Leslie Groves, the Army officer who was director of the Manhattan Project and brought Oppenheimer into it; Emily Blunt is riveting as Kitty Oppenheimer, his wife (on her fourth marriage) but the one who clearly was his match; Florence Pugh plays Jean Tatlock, with whom he had a sizzling but tragic affair; Josh Hartnett is full of his own energy as the lively friend and nuclear scientist Ernest Lawrence; Kenneth Branagh is Niels Bohr, a Nobel Prize winner in physics who serves as sort of a mentor; Benny Safdie is great as Edward Teller, the theoretical physicist who pushed further into development the terrifying H-bomb, something Oppenheimer vehemently opposed; and on and on.
Those three recent Best Actor winners have memorable, if brief, moments as well. Casey Affleck is Boris Pash, the Presidio’s Chief Army Counter Intelligence Officer; Rami Malek is an associate physicist who makes his mark in a Senate hearing later in the film; and an unrecognizable Gary Oldman is highly amusing as President Harry Truman in one of the film’s most memorable scenes as he invites Oppenheimer into the Oval Office to congratulate him on the A-bomb, only to hear Oppenheimer’s new misgivings about its use going forward and that the Russians are on the path to getting it. He shuts him down, dismissing that idea and reminding him, in pure Trumpian-style bravado, that it will be he who will be remembered as the one who actually used it and won the war.
Shout-outs as well to David Dastmalchian as William Borden, a zealous nuclear advocate; Jason Clarke as Roger Robb, who was Special Counsel at the 1954 hearing to deny Oppenheimer’s security clearance; Tony Goldwyn as Atomic Energy Chairman Gordon Gray; and Jefferson Hall as Haakon Chevalier, a key early friend of Oppenheimer’s. Veteran actor Tom Conti also is simply terrific in his few scenes as Albert Einstein, a famous confidant of Oppenheimer’s. Casting director John Papsidera should get plaudits for helping to put together this far ranging cast of fine actors, way too many to mention here.
At three hours, there is a lot of story to tell here, and Nolan condenses it nicely and really moves this along with the pace of the best thrillers. The scene where the big first Trinity test of the bomb occurs in the New Mexico desert is pulse-pounding suspense (no one knew when the button was pushed what its effect on the Earth’s atmosphere would be), aided significantly by the razor-sharp editing of Jennifer Lame and ace cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema, working for the fourth time with Nolan. But this is a movie where you never look at your watch no matter what the running time. Murphy gets the deserved role of a lifetime and really captures all the contradictions of this brilliant, tortured, complicated man. Downey gets his best role in years, a real standout as well.
From a man who has taken us into places movies rarely go with such films as Interstellar, Inception, Tenet, Memento,the Dark Knight Trilogy, and a very different but equally effective look at World War II in Dunkirk, I think it would be fair to say Oppenheimer could be Christopher Nolan’s most impressive achievement to date. I have heard it described by one person as a lot of scenes with men sitting around talking. Indeed, in another iteration Nolan could have turned this into a play, but this is a movie, and if there is a lot of “talking,” well he has invested in it such a signature cinematic and breathtaking sense of visual imagery that you just may be on the edge of your seat the entire time.
Hopefully people will see it in a theater, a place of worship for people like Nolan and me. It was made on the biggest film stock possible and meant for the largest screens, but it isn’t mere summertime escapist entertainment like most of the movies in large formats these days. At the very least, it is a necessary reminder that we are still sitting on the powder keg Oppenheimer and his team created, and we still need to heed his warnings, maybe now more than ever.
Oppenheimer is the most important motion picture of 2023, and maybe far beyond. Producers are Nolan, Emma Thomas and Charles Roven.
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Release date: July 21, 2023
Director/screenwriter: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr. , Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Kenneth Branagh, Benny Safdie, David Dastmalchian, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, Tom Conti, Aldrn Ehrenrich, Jefferson Hall, Jason Clarke, James D’Arcy, Tony Goldwyn, David Krumholtz, Matthew Modine, Dylan Arnold, Gustav Skarsgard
Running time: 3 hrs
Content Source: deadline.com