Jul 25, 2023
Oppenheimer shines as Christopher Nolan’s best, most hypnotic film to date
Christopher Nolan has returned to theaters with Oppenheimer, which may stand as his best film to date. Nolan occupies a rare niche in American cinema: He makes intelligent, layered movies that are given the same marketing treatment as Mission Impossible or MCU offerings. Very few other filmmakers can pull this off; Nolan’s only peer in this realm may be Jordan Peele. For Oppenheimer, Nolan pulls out all the stops, creating a long, dense, and ultimately hypnotic film.
Christopher Nolan left a grand impression on movie-goers with his second film, 2000’s Memento. Starring Guy Pearce, the movie followed an amnesiac as he attempted to piece together various clues, such as cryptic tattoos, in a bid to discover his life before. Memento was smart and did not insult the viewer’s intelligence. These qualities would be present in Nolan’s next movie, a 2002 remake of Insomnia. A career high for the late Robin Williams, Insomnia ensured Nolan’s place in American film, a promise that came to fruition with the director’s Batman trilogy.
While movies such as Memento put Nolan on critics’ radars, Batman Begins and its two sequels made the director a household name, affording him a status unlike any other. In 2020, he released Tenet, which opened to fair reviews and a low box office–although to be fair, the film was released during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time in his career, Nolan had polarized the critics and audiences. While Tenet may be ripe for rediscovery one day, it remains the one film that did not receive universal acclaim from critics. However, with Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan comes roaring back, reasserting himself as one of the best directors working today.
Oppenheimer is, at its core, a biopic. It tells the story of Doctor Robert J. Oppenheimer, a young physicist who is recruited to the Manhattan Project during World War 2.
At the beginning of the war, United States intelligence learned that Germany was conducting atomic experiments, with the goal of creating a weapon. In response, the U.S. created the Manhattan Project, with the intent of beating Germany to the punch. Oppenheimer was recruited to lead the Project, despite protests from the military. A key aspect of the Manhattan Project was its secrecy and compartmentalization; the facilities and scientists were scattered across the country, all working towards the same goal—even if they didn’t know what it was.
Of course, America did develop the atomic bomb, dropping it on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945. The film touches on Oppenheimer’s ambivalence towards the bomb, particularly after it is dropped. In one powerful scene, the Los Alamos scientists learn the bomb worked, and Japan has surrendered. Many of the scientists celebrate joyfully, but a few do not. As Oppenheimer leaves the party, he sees his fellow researchers crying or vomiting in horror of what they unleashed.
The film’s final part focuses on this fallout. Before the war, Oppenheimer had talked to (but never formally joined) the United States Communist Party—a fact that Lewis Strauss tried to use against him when it came time to extend Oppenheimer’s security clearance. Some of his friends, such as Doctor Edward Teller, sold him out in the hearings, and the film touches on this as well.
Oppenheimer features a jam-packed cast: Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders) as Robert Oppenheimer, Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place) as his wife Kitty, and Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) as Lewis Strauss, the former chair of the Atomic Energy Commission. Each of these actors gives great, Oscar-worthy performances.
Murphy, a frequent collaborator of Nolan’s, hits a career high as the titular physicist, embodying both his hopes and his fears for atomic energy. Emily Blunt, as Kitty Oppenheimer, stands out as well. She is the woman of an intelligent man, and she is every bit as smart herself but must take a back seat to her husband. A pointed commentary on gender roles at the time, Kitty still nevertheless supports Oppenheimer through thick and thin.
Finally, Downey shines as Lewis Strauss. Strauss pretended to be Oppenheimer’s friend, but it was revealed he was ultimately the one who torpedoed Oppenheimer’s security clearance. Downey perfectly embodies this political sleaziness, pretending to be Oppenheimer’s friend while simultaneously selling him out.
The supporting cast is enormous and also features some stand-out performances. Florence Pugh (Black Widow) plays Jean Tatlock, an ardent Communist who had an affair with Oppenheimer. Jack Quaid (The Boys) plays the notorious Richard Fenyman and Benny Safdie (Licorice Pizza) plays Edward Teller, two other scientists who worked with Oppeheimer on the Manhattan Project. Others turning in great performances include Tom Conti (Peripheral) as Albert Einstein, Josh Hartnett (Penny Dreadful) as Ernest Lawrence, and Gary Oldman (Slow Horses) as Harry Truman.
As mentioned earlier, Oppenheimer is a biopic. This is a genre that has proven popular with moviegoers as well as critics. However, these films tend to be overproduced and over-sentimentalized; some use the term “Oscar Bait” to describe them. These arguments are not without merit, as these films can sometimes gloss over certain aspects of the subject’s life.
Nolan breaks the biopic mold with Oppenheimer. The film is not a simple retelling of events but instead uses a challenging narrative structure to tell Oppenheimer’s story. The film regularly jumps from era to era, offering viewers the chance to see Oppenheimer both at the Manhattan Project and years later at his security clearance hearing after the Project ended. However, it is a testament to Nolan’s skills as a director that the story flows smoothly, despite the structure.
There is much to like about Oppenheimer, such as the performances and its structure. It would be a disservice not to discuss Ludwing Goransson’s stirring score, which he recorded in just five days. Nolan built a name for himself working with composer Hans Zimmer; however, Zimmer did not work with the director on Oppehemier. Instead, Goransson, whose other scores include Black Panther and Fruitvale Station, among others, delivers a fantastic soundtrack--his score perfectly complements the film.
Oppenheimer’s three-hour runtime may be daunting to some viewers, but rest assured it is time well spent. Between Nolan’s superior direction, the stellar performances, and a killer score, Oppenheimer is hypnotic, drawing fans in and keeping them hooked. While the film may be difficult to get through for some, patient viewers will be rewarded with not only one of the best films of the year, but also, perhaps, Christopher Nolan’s best as well.
Oppenheimer is currently in theaters across the U.S.
Shaun Corley is an East Coast pop culture enthusiast who loves to write about everything entertainment. A big, important Screen Rant writer, Shaun has many leather-bound books, but they're far outnumbered by comic books and the smell of rich mahogany lingering in the air.