Christopher Nolan’s latest is his biggest film. It might also be his smartest about the human condition.
It is perhaps a trite observation to call Oppenheimer, a 3-hour-long Christopher Nolan-helmed epic intended to be viewed on the most massive screen one can find, a big film. And yet, as the dust settles, that is the immediate reaction. Made up predominantly of men—literally almost entirely just men—talking, arguing, persuading, and sniping at each other in rooms large and small, the movie nonetheless feels sweeping and, at times, bludgeoning.
Composer Ludwig Göransson’s score furthers that reality, pushing into the audience relentlessly—save for a moment it skillfully drops away. The emptiness of those few seconds, however, doesn’t feel like a relief. The score may be intense, but the quiet is disorienting to the point of horror.
Is it too big, though? Does Nolan’s reach exceed his grasp? Ultimately, the answer is no, but audiences will be forgiven for, at times, feeling too visually, sonically, and philosophically confronted to parse out anything besides what is immediately before them.
A Haunted Man Haunting A Cursed Project
Lieutenant General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) describes the United States physics ace in the hole J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), as something akin to a rock star mashed up with a super genius. In performance, however, Murphy makes the titular protagonist less the nerd’s answer to Top Gun’s Maverick and more a man who has already become the living avatar of Shiva. With his intense start, glass-cutting cheekbones, and thin frame, Murphy moves through the film like the Ghost Christmas Yet to Come with a very dangerous idea.
It’s mesmerizing and disquieting in equal measure. When others betray, reject, or rage against Oppenheimer—his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), his colleague William Borden (David Dastmalchian), the government bureaucrat Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr)—there is a kneejerk understanding. His temperament, his carriage, his very presence primes one for fight or flight. It’s no wonder so many wish to stick the (proverbial) blade in.
However, Murphy finds a certain soulfulness in Oppenheimer as well. The man, a leftist, when left to his own devices, feels compelled to mold history even as he knows to do so betrays his values. His refusal to stop pushing frequently reads less like obsession and more like a man seeking to outrun his own conscience lest it force him off the path.
The Rest of Manhattan
One of the unexpected joys of Oppenheimer is how it wields so many familiar faces to unusual ends. The most obvious of these is Downey Jr., playing a character devoid of his personal DNA for the first time since…before Ally McBeal, perhaps? If anything can be said to be the film’s villain—beyond the horror of nuclear warfare—it is his score-settling Strauss. But, like Murphy’s Oppenheimer’s Murphy, Downey Jr. gives the former Secretary of Commerce enough shading that he never becomes a two-dimensional antagonist.
Also worth honoring are David Krumholtz and Benny Safdie as Isidor Rabi and Edward Teller, respectively. Krumholtz is likely more recognizable for his comedic work and Safdie for his directing. However, both are talented character actors rarely given material equal to their skills. Krumholtz, in particular, is tremendous.
Less successful, perhaps predictably, is the crafting of Blunt’s Kitty. The actor gives Oppenheimer’s wife a compelling nastiness, but there’s nothing below it. As with the other prominent woman in the film, Oppenheimer’s mistress Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), the performance enhances the bare-bones characterization. Alas, even great work can only add so much shading to someone conceived as two-dimensional.
Nolan in Control
As noted previously, much of Oppenheimer’s action, such as it is, involves conversation or interrogation. Nonetheless, Nolan makes each scene throb with visual pop. Whether it is the wide focus lenses, the canny mix of black and white and color scenes, or Oppenheimer’s “visions” of science, the director refuses to simply set the camera down and watch a scene unfold. This can prove overwhelming at times. Nonetheless, it’s never overly intrusive. It tests the movie’s and the audience’s limits, but he seems to know when to ratchet it back.
Equally compelling is how the director structures time in his script. The story does not unfold linearly, moving between the Manhattan Project to the political fallout of the 1950s and back again. The leaps between decades could feel chaotic, but there’s a sense of cohesion. To lay it out on a timeline might produce a dizzying array of lines, but, in practice, it flows intuitively. The script sets up developments and reveals their results in a way that makes sense, even if it isn’t the way most would tell the story.
In the Aftermath
Oppenheimer is neither a true biopic nor a historical re-enactment. While Murphy’s physicist-turned-father of Earth’s most frightening weapon remains at the center throughout, Nolan is less concerned with telling his story than utilizing him as a tool. At times, even the devastating power of the bomb takes a backseat. We never, for instance, see the results of its wartime use, only the destruction as imagined by others.
What it is is undeniable in scope and skill. Intense tipping towards bruising, Oppenheimer also strangely feels like Nolan’s most human film. After all, what can be more human than rushing headlong into our own moral and physical degradation in the name of both the greater good and our greater glory?
Oppenheimer overwhelms your senses in theatres everywhere on July 21.
Rating: 8.5/10 SPECS
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Tim Steven is a sad tomato, Tim Stevens is three miles of bad road. He’s also a therapist, staff writer and social media manager for The Spool, and a freelance writer with publications like ComicsVerse, Marvel.com, CC Magazine, and The New Paris Press. His work has been quoted in Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and MSN Ireland. Feel free to find him @UnGajje on Twitter or in a realm of pure imagination.