Christopher Nolan explores the life, controversial legacy, and significant scientific contributions of J. Robert Oppenheimer in a tense, superbly-acted biopic. Based on the biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, the film chronicles the “father of the atomic bomb” through an unvarnished lens.
Oppenheimer is portrayed as an arrogant genius with an extraordinary ability to visualize advanced theoretical concepts. He was revered while being greatly disliked and an unabashed womanizer who harbored leftist political views, but also a diligent taskmaster capable of managing the Manhattan Project, which thrust the world into the nuclear age and the brink of annihilation.
The True Story of Oppenheimer
Oppenheimer is told in several concurrent timelines from two points of view. Nolan opens with Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) at the height of the Red Scare in 1954. He’s being viciously interrogated by a committee from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). His security clearance is in danger of being revoked for associations with known communists and possibly Russian espionage. Five years later, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), former chairman of the AEC, and the man who brought Oppenheimer to Princeton after World War II, sits before a Senate panel for confirmation to be President Eisenhower’s Secretary of Commerce.
Strauss is asked directly about his work with Oppenheimer and disputed events leading up to the creation of Edward Teller’s (Benny Safdie) thermonuclear hydrogen bomb. In 1954, Oppenheimer reads a statement about his start in quantum physics and the people who were instrumental in shaping his career.
Nolan then flashes back to a younger Oppenheimer in the 20s as an eager but frustrated student. He was obsessed with the work of Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) and Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh). Oppenheimer believed in the existence of Black Holes. What happens when a supermassive star collapses into itself? A troubled Oppenheimer stares into space but thinks about the gravitational implosion on a subatomic level.
Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer
Oppenheimer’s first act swings between the hearings and seemingly unreal possibilities. He vividly imagines particles in the quantum realm. Nolan uses visual effects to show the audience this chaotic state. He then begins a primer through character dialogue to explain the basic theories of quantum mechanics. This is vital exposition that smartly doesn’t get too detailed. You learn just enough to understand what makes an atomic reaction go boom.
The second act dives deep into Oppenheimer’s complex and sordid personal life. Many intellectuals in the 20s and 30s flirted with communist ideologies. Oppenheimer is introduced to people whose friendships would haunt and cost him dearly in the future. He becomes enamored with the sharp and sultry Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). The devout communist intrigues Oppenheimer with her intellect and voracious sexual appetite.
He also discovers his lifelong love for New Mexico. Nolan shifts cinematic focus to sweeping, spectacular shots of the desert landscape. Oppenheimer’s purchase of a ranch with his younger brother, Frank (Dylan Arnold), a registered communist, would become key to developing America’s top secret nuclear research facility.
The onset of World War II raises the stakes. Oppenheimer, and the country’s leading scientific minds, knew the Nazis were pursuing a nuclear fission weapon. A bomb of this magnitude had catastrophic range and aftermath. Nolan introduces General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), the no-nonsense and tough engineer who designed the Pentagon. He’s given a blank check and supreme authority by the President to beat the Germans to the atomic bomb at all costs. Groves was keenly aware of Oppenheimer’s reputation. He’d been closely watched by the FBI as his communist leanings were well known.
Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves
Oppenheimer’s three-hour runtime is a masterclass in ensemble acting, character development, and film editing. Cinephiles and Nolan worshipers are going to be absolutely entranced with its dense plotting and stunning artistry. That said, audiences should be aware this is not a blockbuster action film in any sense. Those expecting to see epic IMAX and 70mm nuclear explosions are going to be bitterly disappointed. There’s no Terminator-esque scenes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki being blown to bits. The entire first half of the film leads up to the Trinity test. It’s freaking incredible but the only big bang you’ll see here. Nolan isn’t James Cameron in his approach to depicting apocalyptic doom.
Oppenheimer can be likened to a courtroom drama. The Strauss hearings, and any of his recollections, are depicted in black and white for reasons revealed in the climax. Oppenheimer’s perspective is always in color. He thought outside the box and is seen as incredibly sophisticated. Nolan wages a kind of submarine warfare. He never shows the bigger picture outside of Oppenheimer’s sphere. The greater war, Japanese casualties, and other historical events are shaped through dialogue and interactions. This is purposely done because Los Alamos, the town created for the Manhattan Project, was completely insular, as well as the brutal hearing that tore Oppenheimer apart. There will be heated discussions whether Nolan was too limited in his scope.
Oppenheimer has excellent performances across the board, but two stand out in conjunction with Murphy’s brilliant lead. Pugh is daring and graphically sexual as Jean Tatlock. It’s rare to see an A-list talent willing to do nudity for a role. Emily Blunt co-stars as Kitty, Oppenheimer’s thrice-divorced alcoholic wife, and stalwart companion in his darkest moments. She’s a formidable presence against the wolves hunting her husband for his political beliefs. The contrast between these two women, and their effect on Oppenheimer, is mesmerizing to behold. Pugh and Blunt will unfortunately contend against each other come awards season.
Not a Traditional Blockbuster
Nolan’s uncompromising vision deserves every accolade but admittedly isn’t for everyone. Oppenheimer is not a traditional summer blockbuster. There’s no CGI action, trite characters, or contrived storyline. It’s a gripping, cerebral, and at times poetic interpretation of a truly exceptional man.
Oppenheimer is a production of Syncopy and Atlas Entertainment. It will have a July 21st theatrical release from Universal Pictures.