Oppenheimer Review: Christopher Nolan Gives Us a Nuclear Nightmare

Christopher Nolan directs Cillian Murphy as the father of the atomic bomb in Oppenheimer, and like its namesake, it's complicated to a fault.

Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer
Photo: Universal Pictures

In true Christopher Nolan fashion, Oppenheimer is a lot of movie. As usual, the often brilliant and sometimes equally frustrating auteur has set out to make the ultimate of whatever genre he’s working in, whether it’s the superhero movie with The Dark Knight, the techno-thriller with Inception, or the mind-bending space travel epic with Interstellar.

In this case, he’s made the final word on biopics about controversial 20th century scientists: an exhaustive and exhausting look at the rise and fall of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American theoretical physicist widely credited as “the father of the atomic bomb.” Oppenheimer is the man who oversaw the American scientific effort, known as the Manhattan Project, to introduce nuclear weapons to humanity. The results were terrifying.

But Oppenheimer is about more than just the man, a haunted, hard-to-know figure played with impressive backbone and clarity by Cillian Murphy in a career-defining performance. It’s about the confluence of events that led this man—who one gets the impression would have been much happier doing obscure theoretical research for the rest of his life—to a point in time where his abstract ideas about the structure of reality and energy changed the course of human history. The movie is also about how humanity itself deals with the questions that Oppenheimer’s terrible discoveries raise, and what we do with the kind of power that was unleashed by the man and his vast team of scientists at the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico. The answers are depressing.

It takes Nolan a full three hours to get to those answers, but for a while it’s not clear whether he’ll get there successfully. Oppenheimer throws so much incident and so many characters at you, particularly in its first hour or so, that the film is almost bewilderingly obscure for a good chunk of its first act. The fact that Nolan presents all this in his trademark elliptical, non-linear manner, with some impressionistic visuals of atomic structures and fission explosions punctuating it, makes that first third a tough sit.

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We initially track Oppenheimer’s rise through academia and the dizzying formation of relationships with other great thinkers of his time, while also getting glimpses of a later hearing in which a much older Oppenheimer is coming under fire for his liberal beliefs and suspected ties to Soviet Communism. A third storyline (shot in black and white) introduces us to Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), the one-time head of the Atomic Energy Commission, and now up for a Cabinet post in Dwight Eisenhower’s second administration. Strauss’ connection to Oppenheimer gradually becomes clearer as the film moves along.

It’s frankly almost impossible to keep track of the who’s-who of historical figures here, including hydrogen bomb creator Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), Nobel Prize-winner Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), quantum theorist Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), and physicist Richard Feynman (Jack Quaid), among many others. We also meet the two major women in Oppenheimer’s life: psychiatrist and Communist activist, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), and Oppenheimer’s eventual wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), neither of whom do much, although Blunt gets a rousing scene in support of her man near the film’s end.

It’s when word comes that the Nazis are working on their own version of the atomic bomb—and that President Franklin D. Roosevelt has approved the United States’ own fast-track development of such a weapon—that the tension and momentum in Oppenheimer ratchets upward. As Oppenheimer and his fellow physicists toil away on the theories behind the bomb and whether it could work, the scientist is placed in charge of its actual development by General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), who’s impressed by the breadth of Oppenheimer’s knowledge and some heretofore unseen qualities of leadership.

It’s a gamble for that will come back to haunt Groves later, given that Oppenheimer’s progressive leanings, as well as his indirect dalliance with the American Communist party, although he was never officially a member, are well-known and viewed with some suspicion in many quarters of the government. Some of his ideas—like eventually seeking to avoid building an even bigger “super” bomb derived from a hydrogen reaction—are met with incredulity.

Yet Oppenheimer, Groves, and their team race forward to complete the bomb before the Germans can, even as they try to contain the flow of information outside Los Alamos (where the military has literally built a town to keep everyone on the project in one place) and grapple with the moral implications of what they are devising.

Nolan’s masterful skills at cross-cutting, the building of tension, the interplay of music and sound, and the maximum use of the IMAX 70mm compositions he and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema deploy all come to the fore during this central portion of the film, creating a genuine sense of dread and urgency as the date draws closer and the pressure gets stronger to test whether the bomb will work. The urgency arises from the drive to end the war once and for all while the dread surfaces from the fact that no one really knows what will happen when that button is pushed.

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Nolan’s conception of the actual, successful detonation of the Trinity bomb in the New Mexico desert is almost understated in both its terrible beauty and fearsome power, and with the entire movie essentially seen through Oppenheimer’s eyes (except for the Downey hearing sequences), we only get indirect hints at the unspeakable aftermath of the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What we do get in the final act of the movie is not just the clear indication that we as a species are simply not equipped to handle the most powerful force yet discovered in nature—it’s immediately weaponized, launching the Cold War between us and the Soviets—but the destruction of the man who speaks out most fervently against its continued use: Oppenheimer himself, so frightened by his own creation, so rattled by its nightmarish potential, that he begins seeing horrific visions even as he uses his now high public profile to speak out passionately for a global ban on nuclear weapons.

It’s in this third act of the movie and the story of Oppenheimer’s downfall, brought about primarily through the deployment of some good old-fashioned McCarthyism, intersects fully with the confirmation hearings of Strauss. It’s also here that the real villains of the story are revealed and that Oppenheimer is besieged and broken by the full weight of what has been unleashed.

It’s also here that Nolan goes back to the fusillade of images and people that hampered the first act, making what should have been a precisely targeted finale into a curtain call of actors that feels longer than it should. It’s telling that one of the major figures of this part of the movie, played by a well-known, Oscar-winning actor, virtually comes out of the background to deliver a pivotal plot turn after having (as far as we can tell) almost no lines for the previous 150 minutes. It’s also notable that Nolan has to cut to quick flashbacks of the many characters in the movie in an attempt to remind you who everyone is.

This is where Oppenheimer falls short, making what could have been an out-and-out triumph into a film of great ambition that doesn’t quite stick the landing, although its closing sequence is quite powerful in and of itself. The film might benefit from repeat viewings, and also from reading the book, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, on which it’s based. But those should not be prerequisites for viewing the movie on its own.

On every other level, however, this is as magnificent a production as one can imagine. The details of the production design are flawless, the score by Ludwig Göransson is majestic and intimate at the same time—almost feeling like a Greek chorus in the way it echoes the mood of each scene—and the imagery is spectacular. It’s amazing that Nolan can use the 70mm film format for mostly medium shots or close-ups of people talking and yet still make it seem epic.

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Much of his cast also deserves kudos. Pugh and Blunt bravely work with what they’ve got, wringing empathy out of underwritten female characters, while Damon is reliable as always, and others like Hartnett make the most out of characters we don’t get a lot of time to know. Others, however, like Benny Safdie as Teller, struggle with their accents and presence.

Murphy presents Oppenheimer himself as a deeply complicated man: a genius who lives inside his own head much of the time (and, it’s hinted, has some problems in there), while also able to be a forceful, commanding leader; a man deeply wounded by the hurt of others, yet also remote and businesslike; and a man who loves his country yet is willing to risk his own reputation for the greater good of humanity. His naiveté, thinking that he could get people in positions of power to understand the gravity of his warnings, is what finally undoes him. If he’s a bit inaccessible, that’s the character, not the actor, and Murphy is more than capable of holding the screen even if we never fully know Oppenheimer.

Last, but not least, Robert Downey Jr. should walk away with an Oscar for his work as Lewis Strauss. Made up to look older and discarding nearly all the tics that we’ve come to know from a decade of playing Tony Stark, Downey shows us why, although he was never less than great as Iron Man, he was once championed as perhaps the greatest actor of his generation.

Whether the generation that grew up with Downey as the leader of the MCU will go see this difficult, dense, and challenging movie—a film that’s the polar opposite of a “summer tentpole”—is another question entirely. Oppenheimer is bold, often daring, but never fully accessible either, which is both its strength and its biggest flaw. Like the enigmatic figure at its center, it’s complicated to a fault.

Oppenheimer opens in theaters Friday, July 21.


3.5 out of 5