|Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr, Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett
|July 20, 2023
Over the past two decades, writer-director Christopher Nolan’s brand has been fast, loud, high-octane action-thrillers. Rightly or wrongly, he’s become one of only filmmakers in the industry consistently entrusted with big budgets for non-franchise projects. The critical and commercial success of The Dark Knight trilogy allowed him to make Inception, Interstellar and Tenet – three original, mind-twisting adventures that warrant multiple viewings.
Oppenheimer represents a slight pivot for Nolan. He’s taking his well-established style (fast-paced editing, loud music score) and inserting it into an unexpected genre – the biopic. The idea took shape while making Tenet (there’s even a line in that movie about the atom bomb), and it prompted Nolan to read American Prometheus, a 721-page Pulitzer Prize-winning biography authored by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. That became the source material for this 180-minute epic.
47-year-old Cillian Murphy is an accomplished actor with many great credits under his belt (28 Days Later, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Peaky Blinders) but I’ll argue this is the best performance of his career. In a cast which features almost every actor in Hollywood (you’ve got Oscar winners making 2-minute cameos), Murphy takes the lead role of J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American physicist who led the creation of the first atomic bomb during the early 1940s.
Mimicking the look and mannerisms of Oppenheimer with precision, Murphy expertly fleshes out the nuance of the incredibly complex character. There is a fleeting moment of levity where a U.S. Army General (Damon) describes him as an unstable, theatrical, neurotic, womanizing dilettante – adjectives which Oppenheimer doesn’t disagree with. On the flip side, we also see him as an intelligent, open, ethical, communicative, calculating, softly spoken scientist who often puts the consideration of others ahead of his own. It’s rare for a biopic to capture so many competing angles of a single individual.
Nolan likes to play with time, and he does so again here with interwoven timelines. The more significant focus is Oppenheimer’s early education and ultimate involvement in the atom bomb’s creation at a secret military site in New Mexico. The other key narrative concerns Oppenheimer’s under-attack reputation in the aftermath of World War II, and his connection with an influential businessman (Downey Jr) who headed the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.
The production values are extraordinary. Editor Jennifer Lane (Manchester by the Sea) establishes a frenetic pace and maintains it throughout (there’s hardly time for characters to take a breath). Oscar winning composer Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther) has created an intense, bombastic music score which fits every emotional beat. Not wanting to rely on special effects (there isn’t a single CGI shot in the whole movie), Nolan re-created the atom bomb test using a combination of gasoline, propane, aluminium powder, and magnesium (it’s one of the quietest scenes in the whole movie – very cool!)
Offering up an unforgettable, thought-provoking punchline, Oppenheimer will be spoken about for a long time.