July 19, 2023
Last week, in preparation for Oppenheimer, I ranked all of the films within Christopher Nolan’s filmography. As per usual, The Dark Knight reigned supreme, followed by The Prestige and Dunkirk. Now after watching Oppenheimer, I feel that I prematurely released that list, as now the best entry of his entire career has been left off it. I admit, I am still a bit overstimulated as I type this out a mere hour after the credits “written for the screen and directed by Christopher Nolan” flashed upon the screen. But with each passing second since then, I have become more and more convinced that I’ve seen something extraordinary.
Quantum mechanics is full of paradoxes and puzzles that continue to elude the best and brightest of mankind. It’s one of the main reasons it beckoned to J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), a man who never met a challenge he couldn’t overcome with his mind. The boundlessness of theoretical physics was where he made his name, his brain wandering into the stars and unlocking the secrets of the universe. The paradoxical nature of his work also bled into his personality. He was precise and exacting within the lab, but a naive socializer and an unhealthy womanizer. “Brilliance makes up for a lot of that” is his excuse for why he continues to climb within the scientific community and was recruited to head the Manhattan Project.
Nolan cited Oliver Stone’s 1991 masterpiece JFK as one of his main inspirations when adapting this material. He drops you into the middle of the action from frame one and keeps you there. Separate timelines begin to form, each folding into each other with increasing frequency. There’s the future besmirching of Oppenheimer’s legacy; the prideful past where we see his rise; and the roaring present where he must develop the atomic bomb before the Nazis. Similar to Dunkirk, Nolan, and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema define these periods through the imagery. Whether it’s in bright color or stark black-and-white, what you’re seeing is always a work of beauty. Never has IMAX been used to capture the small moments with as much gravitas as the climatic detonation.
And never has Nolan commanded the pacing of his films as much as he does here. Time passes more quickly or slowly depending on when the narrative takes place, with editor Jennifer Lame crafting those drastic differences into an intellectual exercise. It can become quite challenging (to near impossible) to cling to all the details. But this is not like Tenet, which ditched its audience because of its incomprehensibility. This is more like a Wes Anderson film, where there’s just too much going on within the frame and on the page to be fully comprehended in real-time.
Kenneth Branagh plays Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who gives a sturdy piece of advice to Oppenheimer early in his career: “It’s not important that you can read music, only that you can hear it.” Even if I couldn’t read all that was being presented right in front of me, I could definitely feel it. Ludwig Göransson’s tremendous score does a lot to convey the spectacle and terror within these moments of history. There are palpable feelings of anxiety and suspense, despite already knowing the outcome. You feel both a sense of patriotism in seeing this American achievement, and also a deep sense of guilt as a weapon without a defense was unleashed upon an untrustworthy world.
There are just as many stars in this movie as there are in the sky. Robert Downey Jr. takes the reins in most of the later scenes as Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss. It’s the best work he’s done in years as he engages in a game of palace intrigue within a congressional hearing. There’s also Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Emily Blunt, Benny Safdie, and Jason Clarke standing out in decently sized supporting roles. And also Casey Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Dane DeHaan, and Gary Oldman in extended cameos.
Of course, the bulk of the praise should go to Cillian Murphy as the titular character, who capitalizes on the opportunity to be at the forefront of a Nolan film rather than on its sidelines, which he’s done honorably on five previous occasions. There’s always a blankly haunted look in his eyes as if he’s both an all-seeing prophet and a blind fool.
Oppenheimer is as entertaining as it is enlightening, emboldened by Nolan’s unparalleled vision and craftsmanship. It’s possibly his magnum opus, grabbing hold of history with fiery conviction, never letting you go until you’ve experienced all that cinema has to offer.