There are very few filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, who seems to bring highly intelligent concepts to filmmaking, and make them thoroughly entertaining, such as the case with films like The Prestige and Inception. While he may not have many missteps in his career, his previous endeavor Tenet came pretty close as that film became extremely difficult to grasp at times. But with his biopic Oppenheimer, he seemed to have returned to form with a very complex and human look at the Father of the Atom Bomb, with Cillain Murphy leading the charge as the divisive physicist.
In the 1930s, J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) is a renowned physicist, pushing the boundaries of quantum mechanics in the United States. By the 1940s, World War II had turned its ugly head and so has the need for a superweapon. With the scientific breakthrough of the splitting of an atom, every physicist in the world knows it's a race to create an Atom Bomb. Being recruited by General Groves (played by Matt Damon), Oppenheimer now must create the first nuclear weapon with the help of America’s brightest minds in order to defeat the Nazi regime.
I have been a fan of Christopher Nolan for as long as I can remember, and I know with his directing style, he hasn’t missed yet. He rarely has a film that is told in a traditional linear fashion (apart from The Dark Knight Trilogy) and it always makes for interesting character relationships and creative storytelling. Especially for Oppenheimer with Nolan’s decision to tell this epic tale from two different perspectives, as well in different color variations. Such as the case with Oppenheimer’s point of view in complete color and Strauss’s view in black and white, nailing home how different these two rivals see the world. I also have to appreciate how much Nolan didn’t hold back with the direction he took on his title character as well as Cillian Murphy as they paint him as a complicated human rather than a sanitized version of a historic figure.
I said earlier that Cillian Murphy helped paint Oppenheimer as an extremely complicated individual, and that is true, he did do that. Portraying him as a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, and understandably so. Not wanting to create a nuclear weapon, but knowing he must since if he doesn’t do it, they’ll find someone who will. Not to mention how much Oppenheimer held to his political beliefs, making him extremely controversial in the eyes of the government, when in fact he was just a man with strong beliefs. J. Robert Oppenheimer was a man I knew nearly nothing about, except for his now famous quote “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”, not realizing he headed the Manhattan Project or anything. But luckily, Cillain Murphy gave an Oscar-winning performance (I am that confident) that made me understand the influential scientist a bit more than before.
The rest of the cast was nothing to scoff at either, pulling A-listers from all over. For example, Matt Damon giving a heck of a performance as General Groves, someone who doesn’t like Oppenheimer but truly respects his intelligence. Emily Blunt pulls another phenomenal performance as Kitty Oppenheimer, being smart, petty at times, and just a hoot to watch. Florence Pugh is amazing as Jean Tatlock as another complicated individual with a very complicated relationship with Oppenhiemer. But the only one to rival Cillian Murphy in this film was Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss; being intelligent, composed, and cunning when in front of the public, but also manages to pull back the mask of the character by showing how vindictive and bitter of a personality he truly is. Also RDJ is another Oscar contender with his performance.
That’s just a small portion of the ensemble. Nolan managed to also get Gary Oldman, Casey Affleck, Jack Quaid, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branaugh, Josh Peck, Josh Hartnett and even Ben Safdie to name a few in this supporting cast. Each actor I just named only had a few minutes or a few scenes of screen time but they made them count. Not overstaying or overstating their welcome but a few like Casey Affleck or Gary Oldman made their presence known with their brief scenes while not overpowering Cillain Murphy’s performance. Those two with their scenes were honestly terrifying which is nuts considering their brief performances.
With every film of Nolan’s, he always messes with the construct of time as a plot device or theme. Here is no different with the perspectives of Oppenheimer and Strauss. But he also goes deeper into the themes of consequence, existential guilt and humanity; which makes for a unique viewing experience as we see how each character perceives one another and themselves. Either seeing themselves with prideful glee or with one carrying all the burdens of the world. While I will say the runtime gets to you a tiny bit, I wouldn’t change a thing about this film or ask for time back to cut down the runtime. Just prepare for a bathroom break somewhere in the middle if you get that anxious.
Nolan also prefers to use as many practical effects as possible and Oppenheimer is no different. The historic Trinity Test done at Los Alamos was recreated by a bomb (not nuclear) detonation. Another use of visual effects that caught my eye was during one of Oppenheimer’s “interrogations” for his security clearance renewal. As one of the security members questioned him, the room began to shake and suddenly a bright light overtook the entire room with no one even reacting to it. That was a brilliant way of displaying what was happening inside Oppy’s mind at that moment, as well as portraying what felt like a panic attack, and impressive practical visuals as well.
Oppenheimer is another Christopher Nolan gem that will be heralded as a classic in the coming years. With awe-inspiring performances from the entire cast, with Cillain Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, and Florence Pugh as particular standouts, they manage to keep you invested in each character as they interact with each other. Nolan uses his traditional way of storytelling with a nonlinear narrative to give us the full picture of the events leading up to and after the atomic bomb was invented. The use of practical effects is some of the craziest usage of practical effects I have ever heard or seen on the big screen, and Nolan flipped a semi in The Dark Knight; dude’s nuts, (this is a joke). You combine all of these ingredients together, you not only get a high awards contender at next year’s Oscars but a cinematic experience unlike any other that has come before it.