“Now I am become death, the Destroyer of Worlds.”
J. Robert Oppenheimer was perhaps one of the most polarizing figures in American history. On the one hand, he was a man who was and still is considered a brilliant mind due to his intelligence, determination and ambition in the field of theoretical physics. On the other hand, he was seen as somewhat of a shady individual who was accused of being associated with Communism. All of those sides are at the forefront of Christopher Nolan’s epic biographical treatment and he has once again fashioned another outstanding gem in his filmography. Here is a movie that is exactly three hours long, and it feels like two and a half.
Based on the novel “American Prometheus,” Cillian Murphy stars as Oppenheimer. When we are first introduced to him, he’s a student at Cambridge and the University of Gottingen in Germany. He earns his Ph.D. in physics and wants to return to the US to teach the theories of quantum physics at Berkeley. He also develops a relationship with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) but eventually marries Kitty Puening (Emily Blunt). Despite his marriage to Kitty, he still has feelings for Jean.
Matt Damon is General Leslie Groves, who wants Oppenheimer to help develop the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer is convinced the Nazis have their own nuclear weapons and his Jewish heritage plays a strong motivation for coming on board.
Robert Downey Jr. plays Lewis Strauss, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission who expresses animosity towards Oppenheimer. The exchanges between the two take place during a hearing in which Strauss is determined to remove Oppenheimer’s political influence.
Nolan shows us the trials and tribulations of Oppenheimer in convincing, effective detail. The Trinity Test sequence is the highlight of the film in which Nolan perfectly recreates the explosion without the aid of CGI. When we see that explosion, there is zero semblance of artificiality. It’s completely practical and Nolan builds up the suspense in such a fashion that anything could go wrong. His direction is a masterstroke, and as a result, the sequence is thoroughly powerful.
The movie alternates between black-and-white and color sequences. Those in black and white are used to demonstrate Strauss’ viewpoint that has a total refusal of Communism. The color sequences are Oppenheimer’s viewpoint.
Unlike other Nolan films, this doesn’t have elaborate special effects. The cast and cinematic techniques are the special effects. Murphy is a sure-fire lead for Best Actor as he brings to life an Oppenheimer that can transition between being highly confident of his abilities but also contemplates the repercussions of a world that has such weapons in them. Are we creating weapons to save ourselves from imminent threats? Or will they be our Achilles’ heel? These are questions that are pondered throughout, especially in a film that is already heavily dialogue driven. Scenes involving Oppenheimer and Einstein (Tom Conti) clue us in to the inner turmoil they seem to be facing.
The rest of the cast is uniformly superb. Downey plays Strauss as a man who wants to see Oppenheimer fail due to his unwavering belief that Oppenheimer is a Communist. He plays Strauss as cold and direct without a hint of subtlety. Blunt is a woman who stands by her husband and sometimes questions how this scenario will play out. She’s steadfast in her loyalty to her husband, but she also hints at frustrations because he might be willing to make compromises.
On the technical side, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema sprays the screen with incredible images of the desert, and editor Jennifer Lame frames the action to where it is consistently fast-paced to the point of borderline anxiety. And no, that’s not just during the Trinity Test sequence. Not to mention, Ludwig Goransson’s score has a haunting, epic quality that is only reserved for action or sci-fi films. It becomes just as tense as any other technical element. The sound design is exquisite throughout. With these pitch-perfect elements in place, this is an IMAX experience.
Nolan doesn’t allow his movie to breathe but then again, considering this deals with the creation of the atomic bomb, it shouldn’t. Nolan pulls no punches when it comes to his rendering of a man who is both respected and reviled. He is able to craft a film that works visually, intellectually and even philosophically for its 180-minute runtime. It never disappoints, and for the rest of 2023, it’s the film to beat.