Filmmaker Christopher Nolan is an incredible storyteller whose films have often bordered on the self-indulgent. He rewrote Bill Kinger and Bob Kane’s Batman lore extensively, let Christian Bale chew the scenery as the Caped Crusader, and made INCEPTION, DUNKIRK, and TENET a ton more confusing than they needed to be. Yet, in his newest film OPPENHEIMER, opening this weekend, Nolan has presented his most disciplined work to date. It’s crystal clear in its narrative and meaning, there’s not a wasted scene or line, and every actor is spot-on in this compelling true story of the scientist who gave 1945 America the atomic bomb. It’s not only the filmmaker’s truest masterpiece, one that is both breathtakingly epic and heartbreakingly intimate, but it’s going to be very hard to beat as the best movie of 2023.
J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) has always been a contradictory figure. Oppy, as he was known to friends and lovers, was a scientific genius, the theoretical physicist who figured out how a split atom could lead to a weapon of mass destruction to help America win WWII. Yet, for as brainy as the man was, Oppenheimer crossed many lines in the course of his career, suggesting questionable judgment. He incorporated political activism and Communist sympathizing into his college teaching even though it was forbidden by school bylaws. He had numerous affairs, often with colleagues, and developed quite a rep as a womanizer. And while he agreed to work for army bigwig Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) in the development of the weapon to end all wars, Oppy was at heart a strong pacifist. All of that is portrayed vividly in this masterful character study, and every shade and nuance of the man is captured thoroughly by a never-better Murphy.
The film is framed by Oppenheimer’s testimony given to a special government panel in the 1950s which was set up as a kangaroo court to take away his security clearance. (The Feds soured on him as he decried America’s escalating arms race with the Soviets.) Using such a framing device allows Nolan to jump around here and there in the scientist’s biography and capture key moments in Oppenheimer’s life as both testimony and flashbacks. His fullest testimony concerns the years developing the atomic bomb out in the secluded desert terrain of Los Alamos, New Mexico, and it’s here where the story is at its most exciting. Nolan makes this segment crackle like a nerve-jangling thriller as the Americans are working as swiftly as possible to thwart the efforts of Germany. The stakes were high and the effect it had on all those at work in Los Alamos was enormous. Literally, Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists were tasked with winning the war for the United States and Nolan makes the tension of having to deliver such an atomic solution in record time utterly palpable.
And Murphy carries the picture, being in easily 90% of the scenes. He bears a striking resemblance to Oppenheimer at times – similar in lanky physique and piercing blue eyes. There’s a haunted look to Murphy’s Oppy too – at times he looks skeletal, his eyes staring blanking, his gait slow and deliberate. This “destroyer of worlds,” at times, seems almost spectral. It makes the film all the more chilling.
And indeed, the scientist did leave a lot of deathly damage in his wake. Early in the film, college student Oppenheimer tries to poison a bullying professor. Oppy also drives psychiatrist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) to rash acts during their illicit sexual affair. Oppy burns bridges with former colleagues and ends friendships with those who disagree with him. He even tries to squelch the very arms race that he helped start. His life was filled with drama and, dare one say, devastating fallout. At times, his story feels almost like a horror movie, and Nolan even has composer Ludwig Goransson score it that way.
The cast is ginormous, yet every single major player registers strongly. There are some surprise cameos too, but the standouts amongst all the superb supporting players are Pugh, Damon, Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer’s shrewd wife, David Krumholtz as longtime friend and scientist Isidor Isaac Rabi, and Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, a one-time ally of Oppenheimer’s who becomes his truest foil. Downey Jr is revelatory here, playing a villain as if to the manor born.
At times, OPPENHEIMER resembles the Oliver Stone film JFK with its sprawling cast, detailed historical events, and all the various types of ‘looks’ of the cinematography to cover various moods and time periods. I particularly liked the lush, colorful 50s-style photography style that the director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema employs in the first hour of the film. The story is masterfully put together, blending scenes and moods fluidly, and showcasing not only award-worthy acting, writing, and direction, but production design, costuming, editing, and scoring as well.
It may not surprise that Nolan takes the same anti-war POV that Oppenheimer ultimately came to after creating the monstrous device that he did. Such a stance makes the film all the more relevant for our modern times as too many fools today think a nuclear war is winnable. Nolan is using Oppenheimer’s story as the strongest of cautionary tales to stifle such misguided fantasies. Indeed, OPPENHEIMER is a political statement, but its potent message stands in tandem with the film’s exceptional artistry. It’s one of the most exciting and moving films you’ll see this year. Any year, for that matter.