“Oppenheimer” Haunts the Mind With the Agonies of Triumph
A cinematic adaptation of the book “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, “Oppenheimer” recounts the troubled career of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, as he straddles through wartime work, politics and emotional dilemmas in a 3-hour, R-rated epic that haunts as much as it dazzles.
Although marketed as a “biopic,” the movie transcends that genre both in scale, grandeur, and morals. From the onset, it sets the mood: you’re in for a long ride inside this physicist’s psyche.
Telling the story of the father of the atomic bomb, what happened before he made it, how he made it, and the short and long-term aftermath is not a simple one to tell.
Christopher Nolan, however, didn’t read the memo when he masterfully tells it across a three-pronged, non-linear timeline that weaves Oppenheimer’s illustrious and tragic tale across it. This fragmented structure has no negative impact on the movie’s cohesiveness. Ironically, it aids it by cutting into moments where the repercussions of the scientist’s “present” actions are seriously questioned.
Despite combat footage being non-existent, you still feel the incredibly high stakes as the writer-director employs the most technical take yet on the first-person narrative, harnessing harrowing imagery, which cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema does beautifully well with the aid of IMAX 65mm cameras, to lure us into his atom-splitting head and give off a quasi-documentary vibe.
Nowhere is this ambitious director’s intention of avoiding anything didactic more poignant than at the climax of the 1954 security clearance hearing when the prosecutor asks when the man, who indirectly killed thousands and doomed humanity to an unwinnable race, suddenly develops a moral compass. He leaves us to take the juror’s seat in Oppenheimer’s self-condemnation.
The “Interstellar” director is notorious for relying heavily on practical effects in place of computer-generated imagery (CGI). Staying true to his nature, Nolan and his crew famously recreated the nucleic chain reaction to mimic that of the trinity test, which is an impressive feat similar to the rotating set he created for “Inception” in 2010.
What’s more impressive than Nolan’s technical mastery? The stellar cast.
With a rich ensemble consisting Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Gary Oldman, Kenneth Branagh, Emily Blunt, Benny Safdie, Florence Pugh, and Rami Malek, it is easier to point out who isn’t in this film than who is. However, all the spotlight is on Cillian Murphy who absolutely crushes it as the embattled scientist.
His performance is no doubt Oscar-worthy, rivaling previous Oscar winners like Joaquin Phoenix in 2019’s “Joker” and Oldman’s portrayal of an influential politician in 2017’s “The Darkest Hour.” With his ability to convey both personal grief and the growing knowledge that he has created a new universe, Murphy captures the essence of a profoundly damaged man.
Although a scientist, mostly acclimated with mathematical jargon and the love of everything ending with “nium,” Murphy’s Oppenheimer is relatable. And this is the most crucial aspect of his performance. He’s just a guy who’s motivated by the need to help the oppressed in his country and beyond and goes on to create a weapon to end all wars.
The blast may have cratered a hole in the New Mexican desert, but it did in his heart too, puncturing his conscience as well as the fragments of the then-world order. Murphy lays bare the emotions of the character albeit in an ambiguous manner, his stature and facial aperture looking suspiciously much like Oppenheimer’s.
And then there’s another Robert but not a scientist this time. Unquestionably, Robert Downey Jr. is the biggest surprise of the entire three-hour spectacle. You’d never comprehend how underutilized Robert Downey Jr. was in his previous films until you see him in “Oppenheimer.” His stratospheric performance as Lewis Strauss, head of the U.S Atomic Energy Agency and Oppenheimer’s undoing is significant considering his more modest screen time, delivering theatrics so powerful that you tend to forget Murphy’s Oppenheimer is in charge of the film during the final third’s exposition.
Matt Damon’s General Groves, the government head of the Manhattan Project, persists as one of the truly last “friends” of Oppenheimer although he is unsure what to make of him. Thus, his interests in protecting Oppenheimer and national security often conflict. His otherwise strained conversations with the scientists working on the project delivered most of the few moments of comic relief.
Since rifling and politicking aren’t what scientists are known for and military generals aren’t exactly good at Physics, the not-so-smooth relationship between them on such a pivotal project is understandable.
Of all the things Nolan is particularly known for, utilizing strong female characters is not among them. But he makes an exception with Emily Blunt’s Kitty Oppenheimer. As the wife of the most famous man in the world and watching the proceedings from an otherwise unassertively angled corner, Blunt’s heart and tongue ache to defend her seemingly amenable husband.
However, when called upon to testify, she gives what is possibly the most succinct and impactful “girl power” moment of the decade, that leaves even seasoned attorneys stunned. Similarly, Florence Pugh as Oppenheimer’s on-and-off lover, Jean Tatlock, makes the most of her limited screen time.
Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” just like the protagonist’s invention, is a force of nature representing the subtle divide between who a hero and a villain is. It doesn’t force a conclusion down our throats, rather neatly balancing the legacy of the titular character on a needle of ambiguity. There’s a lot to take in that’s for sure – three hours is no joke, and Nolan doesn’t seem to care much about slow catchers with the fast pacing – which, by the way, muddles the dialogue in places that seem otherwise important. But that matters little.
Just as atoms are split in two (fission), our moral compasses are divided when the credits start rolling. The recurrent question we keep asking from the time of Oppenheimer’s security clearance hearing onwards is: “What should he have done?” That Nolan leaves for us to ponder upon. The filmmaker sure knows his way around people’s minds. He did that literally with the characters in “Inception” and figuratively with viewers of his latest film.
Many may not subscribe to this three-hour, R- rated biopic with black-and-white scenes and a lot of dialogue. If you fall within this category, it’s perfectly fine. It’s not meant to. But if you are all-in on the “Barbenheimer” craze and hell-bent on watching the radioactive side of the global phenomenon, yet with a little fear that the “history-ing” would not pull you along, read a page or two about J. Robert Oppenheimer’s career (not limiting yourself to the Trinity test) just to ready yourself for this emotional trauma you’re about to be inducted into.
Release date: July 21, 2023
Runtime: 3 hours
Streaming Service: None. Cinematic Release
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Kenneth Branagh, Benny Safdie, Rami Malek, Alden Ehrenreich, Jason Clarke, and Tony Goldwyn