Director: Christopher Nolan

Writer: Christopher Nolan (script), Kat Bird, Martin Sherwin (book, American Prometheus)

Cast: Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Robert Downey, Jr., Kenneth Branagh, Matthew Modine, Josh Hartnett, Jack Quaid, Casey Affleck, Alden Ehrenreich, James D’Arcy, Rami Malek, James Remar, Tom Conti, Olivia Thirlby, Macon Blair, Louise Lombard

Producers: Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan, Charles Roven

Music: Ludwig Göransson

Cinematographer: Hoyte van Hoytema

Editor: Jennifer Lame

Cert: 15

Running time: 180mins

Year: 2023

What’s the story: In 1950s America, J. Robert Oppenheimer (Murphy) becomes the subject of a Communist witch hunt. During a hearing on his loyalty, he reflects on his role as Director of The Manhattan Project, in which he led the race to beat the Nazis in creating an atomic bomb.

What’s the verdict: Maybe Tenet was good for something after all. On the evidence of Oppenheimer, Nolan’s biggest misfire forced the director into thinking outside his same ol’ schtick.

Not that everything has been jettisoned. Nolan’s love of temporal disruption is still present and correct, the film flitting back and forth over multiple timelines in Oppenheimer’s life. Men in natty tailoring is also present and correct, as is a plot revolving around a terrible world-altering event. And, of course, IMAX.

But this time around, Chris has parked the fantasy for a tale in the all-too real world. And where past protagonists have battled to stop a catastrophic event from engulfing the globe, Oppenheimer focusses on a lead character racing toward it.

And racing is the appropriate word, as Nolan’s direction (from his own script, based on Kat Bird and Martin Sherwin’s book) is an chain-reaction of cause and event despite ditching the chronology. At breathless speed, the film unfurls the life of the “father of the atomic bomb.” Audiences should have brains fully engaged to keep track of all the events and characters as the plot inexorably speeds toward that fateful test in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Cinemagoers who regard the idea of a big-budget studio film treating them like adults will find this exhilarating. Nolan ditches onscreen titles to introduce places or people, opting for just two opaque onscreen time markers: “Fission” is in glorious 65mm colour, detailing aspects of Oppenheimer’s life up to the successful building of the bomb; “Fusion” recounts, in stark 65mm black-and-white, later years when the physicist had fallen out of political favour and was being accused of Commie-conspiracy.

That hefty three-hour runtime flits by, Nolan bringing the same kinetic energy to this men-in-rooms-talking movie as Oliver Stone did in JFK. Here he is assisted by Ludwig Göransson’s restless, nervy score, and Hoyte van Hoytema’s crisp cinematography that frequently locks Oppenheimer in inescapable close-ups. Visual motifs such as sparks igniting or feet stomping in a celebratory/terrible march pepper the film, and cumulatively build to shattering effect. Elsewhere, Oppenheimer’s world literally flexes around him as events he has helped unleash move beyond his reach, and threaten to blow his world apart like tissue-paper.

Those who bemoan Christopher Nolan as emotionally cold should welcome the humanity on display here. Not that his latest outing is awash with sentiment, but in the cumulative power of watching one of history’s most exceptional minds reach a terrible pinnacle of human achievement, and then have to deal with the fallout. A man steeped in theory becomes forced to realise reality is so much more complicated.

In this Nolan-regular Cillian Murphy is as crucial as Liam Neeson was to Spielberg in Schindler’s List. As a brilliant, awkward student, a celebrated visionary introducing quantum mechanics to the US, or the Director of The Manhattan Project charged with beating the Nazis and the Russians to The Bomb, the actor delivers not one false note. Those gaunt-yet-handsome features and piercing blue eyes convey a spectrum of emotion, from imperiousness to crippling doubt, ecstasy to regret.

Nolan makes sure all his characters are living, breathing creations. You’ll emerge not much more informed about how an atom bomb works then when you bought your ticket, but you’ll be in no doubt that these people existed.

Florence Pugh as fiery-but-tremulous lover Jean Tatlock and Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer’s supportive, needling, alcoholic wife Kitty bring a quiet ferocity to roles that play second-fiddle to the male parts. Although Blunt’s sparring with Jason Clarke’s Red-baiting lawyer Roger Robb is electrifying.

But, for all the talk of Pugh and Murphy’s “frank sex-scenes” the impression remains that Nolan is a director more comfortable with his characters clothed…

Matt Damon impresses as Oppenheimer’s military overseer General Leslie Groves, bringing his likeability to a character throwing every resource (and two billion 1940s dollars) into creating history’s most appalling weapon. Robert Downey, Jr reminds us what his talent really looks like in the portrayal of US Atomic Commissioner Lewis Strauss, a man drawn to Oppenheimer’s white-hot brilliance, even at the risk of severe burns. Kenneth Branagh (Nolan’s new good luck charm now Sir Michael Caine is taking it a little easier?) is a welcome presence as Oppenheimer’s idol, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr.

In its casting Nolan’s film recalls a prestige picture from Hollywood’s golden age. Seemingly everyone is present for duty. Matthew Modine, Josh Hartnett, Jack Quaid, Casey Affleck, Alden Ehrenreich, James D’Arcy, Rami Malek, James Remar, Tom Conti (doing a very good Albert Einstein), David Dastmalchian, and Benny Safdie (also one-half of the Uncut Gems directing duo) are all big, recognisable faces that allow audiences to keep track of who’s-who.

This is also a showcase for actors who deserve to be bigger than they are, including Olivia Thirlby, Macon Blair, and Louise Lombard.

Yet as with all Nolan films, the star is the director himself, and Oppenheimer seems his most personal project to date. Investing it with all his technical and artistic brilliance, the director makes a fearful cry for reason in a world spiralling out of control. As we get further away from the wartime use of nuclear weaponry, Nolan seems convinced we need reminding of its power.

The much-feted practically achieved approximation of a nuclear explosion is a moment of awe and dread. But, the lingering visual is the shot of a nuclear blast flaying the skin from an impassive young woman’s face (the director’s daughter). A projection of Oppenheimer’s torment, you suspect it also reflects the director’s anxiety.

Rob Daniel
Twitter: rob_a_Daniel
Letterboxd: RobDan
Podcast: The Movie Robcast

Leave a Reply