Christopher Nolan films have pushed the limits of cinematic storytelling to tell epic stories about unlikely heroes and audacious schemes that examine the necessity, morality, and hubris of ambitious endeavor. The brain-bending heist film Inception took audiences deep into the inner spaces of the dreaming mind, while his spectacular space odyssey Interstellar took them on a trippy journey into the outer limits and looping eddies of the universe. With Dunkirk, Nolan deployed multiple perspectives and time signatures to capture the harrowing experience of soldiers trying to survive the deadly and dehumanizing horrors of war, and with Tenet, he illuminated and manipulated the concepts of perspective and time to spin a metaphysical sci-fi thriller about the present under attack from the future.
Though not a huge fan of most the previously mentioned films, the Oscar®-nominated writer-director now brings to the screen his most intriguing film to date, delving deep into the psyche of a brilliant scientist behind a world-shattering invention that would remake civilization threatening the future of mankind. Inspired by the Pulitzer Prize-winning book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Oppenheimer chronicles the life and legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb.
With vividly gorgeous images of landscapes and horizons that serve a complete antithesis of the subject matter coupled with opening explosion montages, extreme close-up conversations and scenes flipping between color and black white, Oppenheimer is hands down Nolan’s best cinematic masterpiece that will be dissected and discussed for decades. Clocking in at three hour, there is plenty of footage that could have been expelled, but none of that takes away from the film, its direction or its star power.
The story of Oppenheimer’s post-Manhattan Project years offers outside perspective on his work and legacy while also examining the motives and personalities of key individuals who impacted his life. That narrative centers on Lewis Strauss, one of many key players who had a hand in shaping America’s nuclear policy after World War II. In 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower nominated Strauss to serve as Secretary of Commerce.
Not since Chaplin, have I seen such a riveting and complicated layering of character from Robert Downey, Jr. His command of Strauss is beyond powerful in its focus and specificity. Emily Blunt is another one bringing in the sheets with all the thunder as Oppenheimer’s troubled, yet loyal spouse Kitty. Matt Damon, in his stoicism, never breaks into a remnant of a decent human being with more loyalty to the government he serves than to his supposed friend. His portrayal of Leslie Groves screams the bravado required, but also serves the audience as a means to be drawn into Oppenheimer’s story through a completely different vantage point.
Cillian Murphy is the anchor for this film in the title role and a star in every sense of the word. His steely eyed glaze and can simultaneously make the audience feel empathy and loathe his choices for the sake of science. This is never more apparent than in a interrogation scene showing Murphy naked as a symbol of transparency during his testimony. The glee over accomplishing the creation of a weapon of mass destruction is disturbing at best, alongside witnessing how government officials use and abuse genius for their selfish political aspirations proving that power always stays in the shadows. The optics of how the sound was used to convey angst, fear, thrills and elation were brilliantly woven into the cinematic tapestry of this film making it engaging, as well as entertaining.
If I had one criticism, it would be how the actual bombing of Japan was glazed over in some of the scenes like a footnote in a term paper. The bombing of Hiroshima has left a stain on history and with America and Japan that can never be corrected. It was my hope that just a little more credence was paid in that regard.
Oppenheimer may be the story of a scientist on the surface, yet at its core is more about how humanity has little regard for the future and its consequences making it the must see film of 2023.