From the writers of the 2005 biographical novel that won the Pulitzer Prize (American Prometheus), Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, and the critically acclaimed director Christopher Nolan they together brought out the big guns in this gargantuan cinematic interpretation of one of history’s most prolific individuals. Some people around the world saw him as a hero who ended World War II, while others questioned whether J. Robert “Oppy” Oppenheimer (aka the father of the atomic bomb) introduced the world to global chaos and death to all humanity.
Oppenheimer had a huge driving force with Cillian Murphy playing the titular protagonist, bringing his display and characteristics to his real-life parallel. The story covered the life of the American scientist and his role in the development and birth of the atomic bomb. It was sort of split into approximately 3 to 4 arcs—his time being a student and building up his reputation to become the project director of Los Alamos, developing and testing the atom bomb, to dealing with the repercussions of the use of the bombs on Japanese soil.
Emily Blunt’s portrayal of botanist/biologist Kitty Oppenheimer served as a great sense of dutiful wife to Robert’s growing ambitions to create the bomb and his mental shock afterwards—but she is not depicted as a clearly good person either. The utter disbelief on Murphy’s face from the trailers was only amplified in this full 3-hour feature.
“Witnessing the passion and betrayal of Oppenheimer’s love life was like encapsulating the essence of Greek marble sculptures or Italian paintings but in a motion picture medium.”
From the beginning of the film, it was dreadful and a constant, rolling battle of tension. While most of the story dealt with the bureaucracies and moral quandaries of Oppenheimer’s decisions to develop the atomic bomb, it was not boring to hear a lot of talking back and forth. A lot of Nolan’s films had physical action sequences to keep audiences entertained, as in his Batman films or Inception. However, this movie actually had the near-perfect to perfect casting of actors and actresses who felt like their conversations were real and believed what they were saying as their real-life characters.
Matt Damon’s Leslie Groves was an immediate hit with quips on-screen. As he handed his jacket to his Lieutenant General, he told him, “Could you get that dry cleaned for me?” Even Robert Downey Jr.’s natural snippiness that worked into his character of Lewis Strauss felt right for his role. And despite the conversations not being 100 percent accurate to history, Oppenheimer’s cast did not seem constrained to talking a certain way for the time period. Accuracy is one thing in a biography, but also having emotional, genuine dialogue to connect with a current/modern audience is another.
“Oppenheimer was like watching a best-of-Nolan’s movie-making strengths, along with having one of the best casts for his films—if not the best.”
I did not read the book, but the way this narrative was shown made me want to read the book even more—it can be rare for me to be that invested. A biographical book, no less. I thought framing the story in an incongruent way added a lot more blurriness and muddled it up for the better. Again, it played on the themes of morality being muddy and how political views could warp the truth. The disjointed cutting between timelines really worked for me in terms of great storytelling–a riveting one at that. Everything about Oppenheimer’s life seemed to be messy, but it worked out for the best—particularly story-wise.
The use of black and white film was awesome, both from a filmography perspective and a storytelling one. A lot of scenes are replayed but slowly ratchet up to reveal more context as Oppenheimer gets questioned during the development of the nuclear bomb and afterwards. It was some nice symbolism that in certain moments or scenes, his truths were viewed in black and white, but the truth is not so simple. And only scenes that had a definitive truth were colourful. It was almost to say that the truth is more colourful than the cover-ups and shady undertones of legalities.
Nolan’s past films have not typically tackled intimate romantic relationships in dissected, explicit ways as much as this film. Even though I will never know the real Oppenheimer, Murphy’s portrayal made him charming to a womanizing fault with the loves and flirts from his life. From his intriguing foreplay with Florence Pugh’s Jean Tatlock to his marital courting with Kitty, the nudity and sex scenes were done purposefully and, I thought, quite artistically. Witnessing the passion and betrayal of Oppenheimer’s love life was like encapsulating the essence of Greek marble sculptures or Italian paintings but in a motion picture medium.
Nolan’s direction superbly blew me out of the water. Coming in with some background knowledge was a nice addition, too, like how he said there were no CGI shots–everything was done practically somehow. The filming style and cuts in Oppenheimer were like a culmination of Christopher Nolan’s last decades of films like Dunkirk, Inception and Interstellar. While many addressed a sound mixing issue with his last major film Tenet, this one was in tip-top shape across the board in all aspects.
The shots of Oppenheimer’s mind envisioning nuclear fission and combustion in his head was very reminiscent of Interstellar and its visual depiction of black holes. It also reminded me of the shots of the alien ship from Jordan Peele’s Nope and how that was presented in an original way. Oppenheimer was like watching a best-of-Nolan’s movie-making strengths, along with having one of the best casts for his films—if not the best.
“Oppenheimer felt like a visually striking and intellectually-provoking adaptation regardless of knowing certain historical outcomes beforehand.”
The stacked list of cameos on top of the already A-list-casted main characters was abundant but not out of place. Yes, some of them had more lines than others. But whether they spoke or just had non-verbal actions, they brought a certain spotlight that only each individual could bring to their characters—most notably with Gary Oldman’s President Harry Truman or Josh Hartnett’s Ernest Lawrence.
For a movie that involved a lot of talking for three hours and an atomic bomb eventually going off, it did not feel that strenuous. With more films going for longer runtimes like Avatar: The Way of Water and RRR, more of them contain great pacing, never stuck or lingering on something too long (a small peeve with Matt Reeve’s The Batman). The score from acclaimed composer Ludwig Göransson triumphantly shook and awed every story beat, perfectly ramping up drama and tension by slipping in the marching footsteps sound in the background.
Nolan took on another Promethean and Herculean journey with the making of this film by shooting with 65mm IMAX film and projecting in 70mm. By doing so, it tasked Kodak and Fotokem to develop the first black and white IMAX film stock since some scenes were in black and white—and Nolan did not want to use any post filters or CGI at all in the film.
The film reel was said to weigh approximately 600 pounds! Unfortunately, I did not see the IMAX 70mm version, but I can say it will most definitely be worth it when I go and watch it again—however, seeing the big picture in the grand scheme of things does not necessarily mean we see the whole truth.
Oppenheimer felt like a visually striking and intellectually-provoking adaptation regardless of knowing certain historical outcomes beforehand. One last great mention is that the film does not glorify the war in any way, nor does it contain any gory or disturbingly horrific scenes for the audience. It definitely had one but nothing too crazy. Almost everyone knows what happened with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and has seen a recreation of it in some format. So we did not need to see the tragedy again. Overall, the whole experience left me breathless and in awe of the situation and the fallout