Synopsis: The story of American scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his role in the development of the atomic bomb.
Stars: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh
Director: Christopher Nolan
Running Length: 180 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: As the film industry has evolved over the past three years, so has the theatrical movie-going experience. Now, it’s not uncommon for movies by respected directors to appear on a streaming service, skipping your local cinema altogether. That keeps overall costs down from a consumer cash perspective to the annoyance of movie chains that rely on the dough raked in from concessions. However, what is the ultimate price the viewer pays when they miss an opportunity to share time in a dark room with strangers watching the latest large-scale blockbuster projected on a screen four stories high? That’s when we truly lose the art in cinema, and no amount of savings can ever replace that.
Thankfully, we have a dedicated group of filmmakers that fervently strive to protect the theatrical distribution of movies (theirs and others), and, for better or worse, it’s kept cinemas around the world stacked with various options. One of these directors is Christopher Nolan, and he fought hard early on in the pandemic to have his 2020 film Tenet not bend to studio pressure and debut on HBOMax to boost membership of the fledgling service. Delayed multiple times before being one of the first movies to open in theaters cautiously, Nolan’s movie had major issues and fizzled, but it premiered under unfair scrutiny that likely wouldn’t have been present without all the release date shift shenanigans.
That Tenet brouhaha ended Nolan’s long tenure with Warner Bros., and he shopped his next project, Oppenheimer, to rival studio Universal. The much-anticipated film boasts an undeniably incredible cast, lengthy running time, exquisite production design, and is expected to be another Nolan supernova hit. So, of course, Warner Bros. scheduled their big summer tentpole Barbie to premiere on the same date. Not a very friendly move, but all is fair in love and Hollywood. While opposed in theme to its media-assigned competition based on a Mattel toy that is admittedly enjoyable and quite airy, Oppenheimer is a Movie with a capital “M” and would be the one to see first if you’re considering a double feature.
As with many of the titles in Nolan’s filmography until now, the beginning is wholly immersive and consuming from frame one. Starting Oppenheimer is less like casually entering into the life story of theoretical physicist and “father of the atomic bomb” J. Robert Oppenheimer and more akin to being pushed off a high ledge into a deep pool and treading water to stay afloat. Told in intersecting timelines that, in turn, overlap themselves with different periods of history before and after the atomic bomb was created and eventually used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Nolan’s script eschews any visit to Oppenheimer’s youth, picking up when he was a physics student at Cambridge.
While at Cambridge, Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, In the Heart of the Sea) meets quantum theorist Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh, Death on the Nile), who inspires his theories on the atom and eventually becomes a well-respected quantum physics teacher at UC-Berkley. His ties to the Communist Party through sometime romantic partner Jean (Florence Pugh, Little Women) will haunt him later when his life’s work is questioned by a pseudo-kangaroo court organized by vengeful cabinet hopeful Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr., Dolittle). Eventually landing at Princeton (by invitation from Strauss, then a trustee and benign acquaintance), where his old friend Albert Einstein is in residence; due to his reputation and advances in his field of study, he is recruited by General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon, Air) to work on the Manhattan Project.
This first part of Oppenheimer is a dense bit of movie to digest, equal parts complex physics and world history mixed in along the way. Nolan (Dunkirk) is assuming we all aced our finals in these courses (or that we recently took them) because he doesn’t kid-glove any of the events by having characters describe how atoms work or the difference between nuclear fusion and fission. Why would they? They are the most intelligent people in the room, talking to other brilliant minds. The only reason for an explanation would be for the audience’s sake, and Nolan doesn’t write scripts to talk down to his viewer. (That can be frustrating sometimes; it makes perfect sense here.)
As the elements come together for the first tests of the atomic bomb, Nolan’s film and Hoyte van Hoytema’s (Nope) cinematography take on a markedly less scattered pace narratively and visually. The more Oppenheimer’s theories are formed, proved, and made real, the brief flashes of sparking protons, neutrons, and electrons slow and come into focus. It all leads to a heart-stopping sequence of the first test in the early morning hours near the research facilities in Los Alamos, New Mexico. As Ludwig Göransson’s arching music gradually rises to a crescendo, so does our pulse. It’s a stunning passage and the jeweled centerpiece of the film.
The fallout from the proven strength of Oppenheimer’s creation makes up the bulk of the remaining time (through running three hours, it never feels that long), and it deals with the burden felt by the scientist once the power is out of his hands. Though never on record with feeling guilt for what his work contributed to, he opposed the control of it and who held that power. His outspoken contradictions of the government position at a time when the United States was weeding out Communist opposition made him the perfect scapegoat on which to pin a badge of disloyalty. For many years, that’s how he was remembered, not as the veritable martyr to unjust prosecution as he was.
How could anyone by Murphy have played Oppenheimer? It’s a staggering performance covering many ages and looks but retains the characters’ central tenets (har har) to provide a complete picture of an often-misunderstood historical figure. If you had feelings about Oppenheimer before going in, I wonder if Murphy’s performance would make you take a second look. So many thunderously good supporting players surround Murphy that it’s hard to single out just a few. As wife Kitty, Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place) may have turned in her best work. It plays a small but crucial role in understanding Oppenheimer’s personal life and how he could compartmentalize but rarely stand up for himself like others wanted him to. Blunt is outstanding in a few critical scenes and has one of the best unspoken reactions to an offered handshake on film. Then you have Downey Jr. in what should get him an Oscar nomination (at least), playing the snake of a legislator who turns a personal vendetta into a political opportunity. Those waiting for the actor to deliver a performance worthy of award recognition need look no further.
Expectedly, Nolan’s work is a technical marvel, and it’s been edited by Jennifer Lame (Paper Towns) with an eye for pace but never forced expediency. Van Hoytema’s cinematography (split relatively evenly between black and white and color depending on the period and how it intersects) is evocative, frightening, and free from significant trickery. Göransson’s (Turning Red) score is unobtrusive for much of the film but booms in appropriately, matching emotions as instrumental high points. Legendary costume designer Ellen Mirojnick (Let Them All Talk) has created simple but memorable pieces that sketch out the period without Nolan having to broadcast where we are in time. You would never call Ruth De Jong’s (Us) superb production design simple because it’s terrifically gargantuan; each detail has been considered when recreating these pivotal points in history.
Back to that movie “experience” that I talked about before. Nolan filmed Oppenheimer in IMAX 65mm (with some in a first-of-its-kind black-and-white IMAX filmstock), so you have the option to see it in IMAX, IMAX70MM, 70MM, Digital, Dolby Digital, or 35MM. Honestly, each viewing option will provide a unique vision of the film, and believe me, Nolan wouldn’t allow any option in theaters if he didn’t support it. I saw it in 70MM (yes, actual film! I even heard the projector whirring!), but I would want to see it again in the large format IMAX to compare. However you see it, whenever you can, make an effort to see this in theaters. It’s meant to be viewed (at least one time) on the big screen.