Film: Oppenheimer

I approach Christopher Nolan with a dose of skepticism for a number of reasons, not least of which is his track record of broad award-season appeal and box-office success—which is probably just my inner defiant streak. Certainly Oppenheimer (2023), of the Barbenheimer craze and recent Oscar dominance, more than qualifies on that front. Additionally, though, Nolan simply has a history of producing films so technically proficient I can’t even tell if I’m enjoying them (looking at you, Tenet), so a certain suspicious distance seems healthy. In Oppenheimer’s case, there’s also the historical angle to consider, placing as it does a controversial figure’s life in the hands of a master manipulator. All that said, and while I do have a few problems with it, it’s easy to see why this one captivated so many.

Oppenheimer considers the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the theoretical physicist who was responsible for leading the U.S. nuclear weapons development program during World War II. Murphy is in superb form, imbuing Oppenheimer with a tricky balance of charismatic mystique and cold inscrutability—an approach that suits the project, affording it to speculate subtly on personal motives, inner demons, and the emotional and psychological consequences of his important, world-changing work. The narrative eschews typical biopic rhythms, wherein linear events are awkwardly bashed into artificially dramatic shape. Instead, Nolan frames the story in complex multiple flashbacks. The foundational track is conventional: the early days of Oppenheimer’s career, and his rise to lead the Los Alamos project, collaborating with numerous other scientists and military personnel to develop the bomb. But this conventional origin story is filtered through the lenses of future events, reflecting back in retrospect. The first is a closed-room, star-chamber interview to reconsider Oppenheimer’s security clearance during the McCarthy Era. The second is a Congressional confirmation hearing for Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.), whose interactions with Oppenheimer during Strauss’s leadership of the Atomic Energy Commission further inform the history. These three tracks unfold in skillful layers to provide both the basic timeline and multiple, more removed interpretations of it.

The strategy is deft and intelligent, because in the end, Nolan’s directorial execution is similar to Murphy’s performance: a tightrope walk of accessibility and unreadability, drawing the viewer in enough to relate to Oppenheimer without inscribing a bald political stance on him. This addressed a key worry going in; the development and use of nuclear weapons is by its very nature a political and ethical discussion, and it might have been tempting to choose sides, be didactic, or land on the nose. The story does unfold as a rivalry between Oppenheimer and Strauss, but by no means are they framed as hero and villain; their conflict is merely used as a way of coming at the subject from different angles. Both points of view feel valid and understandable—about each other, and about the problems of a burgeoning nuclear age. And that’s true of the film as a whole, too: the subject matter is treated with nuance, acknowledging the urgency of the stakes and the complexity of the situation.

Would I have preferred a more progressive and diverse cast? Sure, although I suppose to a degree it’s understandable that the realms dominated by white men in the mid-twentieth century that are so key to the story—government, science, the military—would result in a cast dominated by white men. If you thought Barbie was a hot casting ticket, wait until you see Oppenheimer, which has an enormous cast of stars. Murphy and Downey, Jr. are unsurprisingly first rate, but there are other stand-outs; particularly noteworthy are Jason Clarke, Alden Ehrenreich, and Benny Safdie, but everyone is terrific. Alas, the only significant female characters are Oppenheimer’s fiery wife Kitty and his intense mistress Jean (wife and mistress, sigh); but they are played very well by Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh, respectively.

A handful of Nolanesque problems do occasionally creep into things. The breathless, artsy, distracting energy of the first twenty minutes verges on off-putting before the film finds a comfortable rhythm. At times, the editing and sound design threaten to overwhelm the content of the scenes—usually with some tactical intent, but still verging on the intrusive. Nolan’s work appeals to me much more when I’m not noticing his technique, but he has a tendency to lean into big, deliberate swings, and while they’re usually effective, they often feel overwrought. Numerous quibbles aside, Oppenheimer is an epic, flashy, intense film about a fascinating subject, beautifully produced and full of capable dramatic firepower.

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