Film Review: Oppenheimer

Film Reviews

Director: Christopher Nolan

Syncopy and Atlas Entertainment
In Theaters: 07.21

It’s ironic that a summer of box office disappointments has all been leading up to a movie about making and dropping the biggest bomb of them all. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer needs to leave a huge impression or else the fallout will be significant.

Cillian Murphy (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Peaky Blinders) stars as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who would “become death, the destroyer of worlds.” A pulse-pounding thriller wrapped inside a biopic, Oppenheimer follows two stories: the titular scientist’s work on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos Laboratory creating the atomic bomb, the decisive weapon meant to end World War II and ideally all war, and the 1954 hearings about his suspected ties to the Communist party. The intertwined narratives paint a vivid portrait of a brilliant mind belonging to a driven, complex and deeply flawed man and of how the quest to beat the Nazis and creating this horrific weapon ended the greatest conflict of the twentieth century by ushering in the threat of an unimaginable danger that would hang over the world forever.

Nolan is in need of a notable show of power himself after the effort to use Tenet as the super weapon to bring audiences back to theaters exploded in his face, and Oppenheimer decisively hits the target. This adaptation of the Pulitzer prize–winning American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin pulls the audience right into the action, making you feel like you’ve been granted security clearance for the most pivotal operation in the history of the world. Both as director and screenwriter, Nolan masterfully builds the tension throughout, filling us with a mixture of excitement and dread the closer “Oppy” and his team get to realizing the fruits of their labors. 

The sequence wherein the first bomb is tested had me holding my breath and feeling my heartbeat through my chest, and I knew exactly what was about to happen. Despite the non-linear narrative structure, it’s quite easy to follow the jumps back and forth through time, and the subject matter feels disturbingly timely on many levels. Whether it’s the specter of tensions with Russia and China, the rising concerns over where advances in artificial intelligence are leading us or the freakout anytime someone mentions socialism, there’s plenty here to apply today. While Nolan still goes for bombastic, booming bass in the musical score, it only threatens to overpower the dialogue in one major sequence.

Murphy is incredible in the lead role, and the only reason people won’t be more agape at how perfectly he becomes the man than they were with Austin Butler in Elvis and Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody is that far fewer are as familiar with the real Oppenheimer. Emily Blunt gets some terrific moments as Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, and Matt Damon makes General Leslie Groves Jr., director of the project, a fully human character as interesting as Oppenhiemer in his own way. While Robert Downey, Jr does stellar work as Lewis Strauss, the man who tried to take down Oppenhiemer, for my money the most memorable supporting performances come from Alden Ehrenreich (Solo: A Star Wars Story) as an unnamed Senate Aide and David Krumholz as Oppenheimer colleague Isidor Isaac Rabi. The star-studded cast could have been a distraction, but Nolan uses the recognizable faces as an invaluable tool for keeping track of who’s who in a three-hour film filled with many significant characters coming and going. When you consider the sheer size of the cast, it’s all the more impressive that Murphy never gets lost in the shuffle. 

Oppenheimer is smart, ambitious and has an epic “event movie” quality that combines serious drama with a blockbuster sense of showmanship, and if it manages to pull in audiences, it may be Nolan’s long-awaited path to Oscar gold. Either way, it’s an unforgettable moviegoing experience that is well worth the investment of time and the price of a ticket. –Patrick Gibbs

Read more reviews of summer blockbusters:
Film Review: Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One
Film Review: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny