This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn’t exist.
If you fire a neutron into a uranium nucleus, you may get a nuclear chain reaction. If you fire good source material at Christopher Nolan, he might not make a good movie, but sometimes he will.
Oppenheimer is one of those occasions in which Nolan’s entanglement with source material produces a properly thrilling movie (don’t worry, I’ll stop the quantum mechanics jokes here). This is Nolan’s best movie since at least The Prestige, or maybe ever. Nolan’s ostentatious epics can misfire, usually if he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. With Oppenheimer, he’s put himself in a place that matches his ambitions.
Oppenheimer spends every minute of its runtime striving to be one of the great Hollywood epics of cinematic history. It is meticulously complex and massive, darting across space and time with a precision that Memento only hinted at. Nolan’s assertion in interviews that Oppenheimer’s story is the most dramatic ever told is hard to argue with: if you want to tell an epic story, make a movie about the Manhattan Project. Comparisons to Lawrence of Arabia, consciously invited by the text, are conspicuously earned. This is a movie whose supporting cast includes Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Edward Teller. If Oppenheimer wasn’t a triumph, it could only be a disaster. There’s no room for this movie to be passable or even just “pretty good” — Oppenheimer wants to be mentioned in the same breath as The Godfather and The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Miraculously, this works. The storytelling on display is as good as the story earns. Nolan’s studious fixation on American Prometheus, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s excellent biography of Oppenheimer, has paid off. Knowing the story of Oppenheimer’s life inside-out, Nolan fits it neatly into his old favorite mode of a nonlinear puzzle box. The result is as neatly told as The Prestige, with a stomach-churning quality that The Dark Knight only managed in spots.
J. Robert Oppenheimer is of course much more interesting than the nom de guerre “Father of the Atomic Bomb” would indicate. He was a profoundly insecure man, brilliant and rash in equal measure, alarmingly detached and loyal to a fault. Oppenheimer simultaneously celebrated left-wing causes, including Spanish anti-fascists and European Jewish refugees, and built the imperialist atomic bomb that Truman used to murder a quarter-million Japanese people. He served his country and was defeated by antisemitic Red Scare tactics. His contributions to the nuclear storm of the 20th Century were followed by seeming contrition (humble or self-serving, we may never know). One may argue whether any of this matters more than the civilian lives of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and if you know my politics, I’m sure you know my answer). But the evil he contributed to doesn’t make his story any less fascinating. If you’re going to make a movie about an infamous servant of American imperialism, Oppie is the guy to make it about.
Cillian Murphy sells all of this brilliantly. His particular brand, synthesizing Weird Little Guy energy with enigmatic silence, is simply perfect for Oppie. (A few nights ago, some friends and I rewatched The Dark Knight and cheered when Murphy appeared.) Murphy’s interpretation of Oppenheimer is one of the best performances of the century, and the Oscar he will inevitably win for this role will be well-earned. The last performance I saw that felt remotely like this was Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence.
Oppenheimer runs the risk of becoming a banal Great Men of History story. And to be sure, this movie is about a tormented genius who shaped the modern world. Yet it’s saved by the nuances and paradoxes of Oppenheimer’s story. He was a Jewish man who fought the Nazis to save his people. This is a powerful, compelling movie about how nobody is fully saved by history; Oppie dedicates his life to his government and is still discarded by it. His judgment, even when technically correct, is simply not permissible in his context. He’s profoundly out of place, in a weird way that standard hagiographies don’t grasp.
Oppie’s supporting cast is just as vital. Robert Downey Jr, cast brilliantly against type as an upstart would-be great man of history, turns in his best performance since Natural Born Killers. Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh, while continually sidelined in the way all of Nolan’s female supporting characters are (literally all of them), light the screen on fire every time they appear. Pugh particularly gets to sell the iconic “destroyer of worlds” moment in a way so spectacularly weird that I was shocked Christopher Nolan had put it to celluloid. And Matt Damon is surprisingly fun as Oppenheimer’s unlikely ally, General Leslie Groves.
On paper, Oppenheimer should be sunk by Christopher Nolan’s usual foibles. It’s yet another non-linear puzzle culminating in powerful men making a weighty moral choice. The female characters are either fridged or dramatically sidelined (although Nolan has the excuse of history for Jean Tatlock’s early death). Oppenheimer’s worldview boils down to a tedious Great Men of History plot. If you disliked Inception or Interstellar, as I did, you should find plenty to dislike in Oppenheimer. And yet I absolutely loved Oppenheimer, which captures the dizzying nightmare of history and the beauty and horror of quantum physics with a depth only IMAX can manage. This is one of the best movies of the past few years. If it ends up being named alongside Dr. Strangelove and Seven Samurai as one of the great movie epics, it’ll have earned it.