Review: Oppenheimer — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

This sprawling epic chronicling the creation of the atomic bomb is the most balanced film yet from director Christopher Nolan, who has too often sacrificed character studies for spectacle.

Oppenheimer (Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures)

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⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Rating: R

Run Time: 3 hours

Stars: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Matt Damon, Robert Downey, Jr.

Writer/Director: Christopher Nolan


The easy part for director Christopher Nolan was making Oppenheimer a big-screen behemoth; a sprawling epic chronicling the creation of the atomic bomb. Trickier was embedding within that blockbuster megaproduction a film of almost excruciating intimacy; a psychodrama that probes the soul of perhaps the 20th century’s most unknowable man.

Mission accomplished on both counts: Movies don’t get any bigger than Oppenheimer, and seldom do they get under a character’s skin more effectively. This is the most balanced film yet from Nolan (Inception, Interstellar), who has too often sacrificed character studies for spectacle.

First, the spectacle: Nolan has chosen to make Oppenheimer on 70mm IMAX film, a decision that creates a granular universe that pops to life even on the digital transfers most theaters will be showing. (A ridiculously obvious bit of advice: Absolutely see Oppenheimer on the biggest screen you can.) In the tradition of the maxi-screen medium, Nolan and his perennial cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema offer breathtaking vistas of the New Mexico desert and picture postcard images of the lush university campuses the characters frequent. Filming almost entirely at or near the original locations, in New Mexico Nolan even recreated The Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos town — every board and nail of it — conjuring (for me, anyway) temporary nervous memories of Michael Cimino’s calamitous rebuild of 1880s Casper, Wyoming, for Heaven’s Gate.

Then there’s the movie’s centerpiece: The detonation of the world’s first nuclear device — called “The Gadget” by its creators — early one July morning in 1945. Following an excruciatingly long countdown (I had no stopwatch, but I suspect those last few seconds are substantially drawn out), the explosion erupts with hypnotic grace. Nolan takes dramatic advantage of the fact that, depending on how far away you are, you’ll see an explosion long before you feel and hear it. As the fireball fills the screen (Nolan does the whole thing without a single digital effect), the soundtrack is silent, except for the breathing of Oppenheimer, who has left the safety of his bunker to stand, mouth agape, in the open air. One knock on Nolan has long been that he doesn’t know when to tell his composers to put down their pens; here, Ludwig Göransson’s soaring score falls silent, with unnerving results.

As for the human element, never before has Nolan found such perfect balance for a film’s secret sauce. Cillian Murphy seems born to play Oppenheimer — compare him here with photos of the physicist and it is, frankly, hard to tell them apart. Murphy’s wide blue eyes seem to stare in perpetual horror at visions of what Oppenheimer’s creation hath wrought; his haunted, gaunt visage betrays the scientist’s own private, lifelong condition of shock and awe concerning matters of quantum physics.

Murphy is the singularity around which the entire film orbits, but the who’s who supporting cast suggests that all of Hollywood was waiting by the phone, hoping Nolan would call. Matt Damon, pleasingly lumpy and charmingly officious, is Gen. Leslie Groves, the military officer in charge of the Manhattan Project. Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh play the most prominent women in Oppenheimer’s life (although there were, reportedly, many more), and they make it almost believable that anyone would be willing to devote their lives to a guy with his head not merely in the clouds, but in the cosmos.

Only one actor has ever won an Oscar for acting in a Christopher Nolan film (that was Heath Ledger as Joker in The Dark Knight, and let’s face it: Ledger was a director-proof creature). Certainly, Murphy has a Best Actor shot this time, but the shoo-in Supporting Actor nod has got to go to Robert Downey, Jr. as Lewis Strauss, the 1950s tycoon who was alternately Oppenheimer’s greatest promoter and worst enemy. Downey disappears into the role, eyes like saucers behind round, dark eyeglasses, vanishing hair brushed into a pitiful comb-over. Embodying the twin qualities of power and paranoia, Downey evokes a late-career Henry Fonda, with compelling results.

Elsewhere, beneath masterful makeup, you’ll spot Tom Conti as Albert Einstein, Gary Oldman as Harry Truman, and Kenneth Branagh as physicist Niels Bohr. One guy turns up, seemingly, just to pick up something that Oppenheimer has dropped, and I could’ve sworn it was Bohemian Rhapsody star Rami Malek. Sure enough, Malek returns an hour or so later to give one of the film’s pivotal speeches.

Which brings up the one weak link in Oppenheimer’s cinematic chain reaction: its 3-hour length. (The studio released a photo of the celluloid IMAX version sitting on a projector noting that, unspooled, the physical film would stretch 11 miles, as if that were a good thing.) For such an assured piece of filmmaking, you’d think Nolan would have known when to end Oppenheimer. The climactic explosion comes roughly two hours into the film, then settles into chronicling the scientist’s turbulent McCarthy Era, during which he lost his security clearance — and access to government contracts — due to early contacts with American communists.

Fair enough, but Nolan insists on subjecting Oppenheimer (and us) to one impassioned speech after another in front of a commission that we already know has been rigged (by Strauss) to toss him under the bus. It’s an important chapter, but compared to the world-changing events that came before, this one is worth, at most, 20 minutes or so.

When the admittedly powerful finale finally came, I’m sorry to say I was glad Oppenheimer was over. And that’s no way to feel about a film that gets so much so monumentally right.

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