Universal Pictures



With ‘Oppenheimer,’ Christopher Nolan has Created a Brilliant Film

As pupils slouched at our school desks during history class, we easily and naturally disassociated with the many stories of war. World War II was lumped in with WWI, the Civil War, and the Revolutionary War. There were names and dates to memorize for quizzes and final exams, yet even with relatives recounting stories of kin, a personal connection was rare. As we aged and experienced modern-day warfare, the personal connection became all too real.

Reality struck that soldiers are human beings with families, and despite their missions and marching orders, most are as innocent as the ‘tragic civilian casualties’ reported on the newswires. Along these lines, an aspect of war that has often remained overlooked is the behind-closed-doors decision-making of politicians and military leaders. Filmmaker-extraordinaire Christopher Nolan takes us behind those doors through the eyes of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man probably single-handedly responsible for the atomic bomb. What we see is quite frightening.

Prepare yourself. At a full three hours in length, Nolan’s film is a hefty undertaking for viewers. It demands full focus and attention to details and nuance, as you spend significant time listening to brilliant men talk amongst themselves. Nolan adapted the screenplay from the 2005 biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. The end result is a film centered on complex physics and mathematics yet presented in a simplified manner such that it’s more of a character study than a science class. The key is what characters say to each other, how they say it, and how they debate and rationalize the morality of the objective; building a bomb designed to kill people.

The morality of the Manhattan Project is under the microscope here, as is the motivation and concern of Oppenheimer. We get some early background establishing him as an upcoming mind in the world of physics from his academic stops around the globe.

Some know Cillian Murphy from Peaky Blinders or as the Scarecrow in Nolan’s Batman movies. I’d also recommend a couple of Murphy’s underrated gems: Free Fire (2016) and Red Eye (2005). It’s hard to overstate how spot-on Murphy is as Oppenheimer. He lost weight for the role and captures the distinctive movements and speech patterns, as well as the familiar poses and deep-in-thought eyes. We never once question whether this is Oppenheimer, the leader of the science team at the Los Alamos Lab and the “father of the atomic bomb”; the one who “sees beyond the world we live in.”

Once Major Groves (Oscar winner Matt Damon) recruits Oppenheimer to run and assemble the great scientific minds, the obvious question to those involved is; even if we can create this bomb, should we do it? This weighs heavily on Oppenheimer – a man so engulfed by science that his haunting visions are that of atoms and particles and experimental reactions (perhaps a bit too heavy in the first act).

Groves is the military leader of the project and the liaison between the scientists, the military, and the government. It’s also clear that while Oppenheimer’s brilliance is recognized and necessary to the project, almost no one outside of the scientists trust him. This is where anti-Semitism and fears of communism arise. Oppenheimer was Jewish and, though he never joined the Communist Party, was associated with many who did. This included his love interest, Psychiatrist Jean Tatlock (the fabulous rising star Florence Pugh), his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), and his brother Frank (Dylan Arnold).

The teamwork and stress involved with building the bomb in Los Alamos is conveyed as rooms full of brilliant minds determine the future path of the country and the world. This culminates in the stunning sequence of the Trinity test near Alamogordo. A blending of complete silence, along with spectacular sound and light, is truly a technical highlight of the film. The initial celebration of success initially overshadows the true meaning; the bomb is now ready for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing two hundred thousand people and essentially ending WWII, less than four years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese (never mentioned here).

A scene from 'Oppenheimer' starring Cillian Murphy
A scene from ‘Oppenheimer’ starring Cillian Murphy. (Universal Pictures)

The bombings are heard via radio news reports, and it’s at this point that the weight of what the scientists have done is fully realized. Oppenheimer became a national hero, and his Time Magazine cover proves it. A meeting with President Harry S. Truman (Oscar winner Gary Oldman sporting a Missouri accent) doesn’t go well, as Oppenheimer is introduced to political gamesmanship, something he would face even more directly in the near future. Lewis Strauss (Oscar winner Robert Downey Jr.) is a key player as chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and through him, we witness ego, ambition, and petty behavior that leads to a level of vindictiveness typically only seen at the junior high school level.

Multiple timelines are covered. There is background information on Oppenheimer’s early years, his well-rounded academia, his love life (lives), his building of the Los Alamos Lab team, the overseeing of the bomb development, his time as a hero, the later backroom kangaroo court designed to disgrace him, and Strauss’ Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of Commerce. All of these tie together, and it’s those final two that make up the last act of the film – giving us a taste of just how nasty politics was 70 years ago (not unlike these days).

Nolan has assembled a deep cast with numerous Oscar winners and a roster of talented actors. Among the familiar faces not already named above are: Oscar winner Kenneth Branagh as Danish Physicist Niels Bohr, Oscar winner Rami Malek as experimental physicist David Hill, Oscar winner Casey Affleck as military security advisor Boris Pash, Tom Conti as Albert Einstein, Benny Safdie, Dane DeHaan, Jason Clarke, Josh Hartnett, David Krumholtz, Matthew Modine, Alden Ehrenreich, Scott Grimes, Tony Goldwyn, James D’Arcy, James Urbaniak, Olivia Thirlby, James Remar, and (Nolan regular) David Dastmalchian.

The film is a historical biopic and also an unconventional thriller. Is this about unparalleled advancement in science or is it about the moral dilemma of mass destruction and death? Politics, military, ego, power, science, love, revenge, and redemption are all displayed as Oppenheimer struggles with the power he has created and the lack of power in how it’s used. My favorite line in the film is aimed at Oppenheimer when someone informs him that he’s now “not just self-important, but actually important.” The stakes are clear during the test when it’s stated that there is a “near zero” chance of destroying the world.

Cillian Murphy is a shoo-in for the Best Actor nomination, and his performance mesmerizes us. It’s nice to see Robert Downey Jr. remind us of his true talent, and he should be rewarded with a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt, in the only two substantive women roles, should both receive consideration as well. Pugh’s role is limited but memorable, while Blunt shines in her best scene during the security hearing.

Christopher Nolan has delivered near perfection in technical moviemaking, and on top of that, the story and characters are real life, and the performances are top-notch. His use of black-and-white film stock for Strauss’ perspective allows the viewer to differentiate Oppenheimer’s viewpoint. Impressively, while there are some visual effects, Nolan has stated that no CGI was used in the film, and that’s most evident in the relatively short closing credit roll – where we typically get dozens if not hundreds of technical experts listed. Ludwig Göransson’s (Oscar winner for Black Panther) score packs an emotional punch, and Jennifer Lame’s editing is excellent and vital. Lastly, cinematographer (and regular Nolan collaborator) Hoyte van Hoytema drives home the power of smart men in a room, as well as the devastation of the bomb test.

This is excellent filmmaking and a reminder that the only thing we love more than lifting new heroes onto the pedestal of worship is tearing down those same heroes with a dose of humility. These types of movies rarely get produced these days, so here’s hoping enough people go back to the theater to see it to inspire more filmmakers to take a shot.