It is incredible that after a dozen feature films and 25 years of directing movies, Christopher Nolan has created yet another crown jewel in his oeuvre. Oppenheimer tells one of the most important stories in modern history in a gripping and engaging fashion which fits snugly with Nolan’s prior films in terms of tone, ideas, style, and delivery. Featuring Cillian Murphy in an Oscar worthy lead role, one of Robert Downey Jr.’s all-time greatest performances, and a star-studded supporting cast including Florence Pugh, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, and so many more, Oppenheimer is simply a top film from a top filmmaker who is conscious of the roles his films play in his overall body of work and how they relate to our modern life and times.
As a straightforward historical drama, Oppenheimer delivers. People of all walks of life who want to learn about one man’s role in the creation of the single most destructive thing in our world will leave the theater satisfied. The story of how J. Robert Oppenheimer came to head The Manhattan Project, his role in the creation of the world’s first nuclear weapons, and his personal inner and outer struggles in the aftermath of their fallout is tailor made for the silver screen, and Nolan has adapted it in such a way that it should be required viewing for those interested in history and the big questions that history causes us to grapple with. For this film, Nolan cuts back on nonlinear storytelling or dialogue that is covered under layers of musical score to great effect. His style is present in the film, but some of the complaints that casual moviegoers have about the accessibility of Nolan films will not be as common with Oppenheimer.
As soon as a fan of Nolan’s work peels back the layers of the film, it becomes clear how Oppenheimer fits in with the rest of his work. J. Robert Oppenheimer is a classic Nolan protagonist. Much like Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne or Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper or Tom Hardy’s Farrier before him, Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer is a protagonist who makes the hard decisions to achieve his perceived greater good and suffers the consequences for plunging his hands into the filth so that others may keep theirs clean. In Nolan’s world, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” In Christopher Nolan’s body of work, we see Cillian Murphy go from overseeing a kangaroo court as Dr. Jonathan Crane in The Dark Knight Rises to being on the other end of one in Oppenheimer as soon as it becomes politically beneficial to take away his security clearances. This isn’t the only time Nolan plays with prior casting to achieve intertextuality in his body of work with Oppenheimer. Tom Conti, who played the doctor in the underground prison who helps Bruce Wayne heal from a broken back in The Dark Knight Rises plays Albert Einstein in Oppenheimer. Hearing that same distinct accent and cadence coming from the same actor who plays these similar mentor figures delivering priceless advice to these Nolan protagonists is pure movie magic.
What makes Oppenheimer unique is that this Nolan protagonist isn’t as cut and dried of a hero as the stars of many of his other films. One would have to travel all the way back to 2000’s Memento or 2002’s Insomnia to find a leading man with as many shades of gray. What makes Oppenheimer stand out is that it isn’t a fictional character. It’s the story of a man who created something that’s incredible and terrible… something that both saved lives and took lives on an obscene scale. This is where Murphy and Nolan achieve their greatest feat: J. Robert Oppenheimer is not a hero or a villain in this film, he is simply a man who bears the weight of the impact of the role he played in an event that changed the world forever.
The horrors of this impact are where Oppenheimer really shines. Many early reviews took issue with the fact that the movie runs at least another 30-40 minutes after the “trinity test” detonation of the test bomb. For this reviewer, the following scenes were some of the film’s most engaging and terrifying. It’s not new for Nolan to deliver a film which serves as a ticking timebomb of a stress test, and Oppenheimer achieves this even while forgoing any of the action pieces which have highlighted his previous climaxes and denouements. Instead we see our protagonist metaphorically tarred and feathered for someone else’s idea of the greater good, all the while tormented by his own inner demons as well.
Oppenheimer makes direct mention of the Prometheus story, and one can’t help but also think of the story of Victor Frankenstein (and how Cillian Murphy would play an excellent Victor Frankenstein in a Nolan film). What’s interesting is that Nolan spent the early decades of his filmmaking exploring science fiction stories which often ask us, “just because we can do something, does that mean we should do it?” and now he is delivering audiences a film which documents what is arguably the first time a real human being had the knowledge and power to grapple with such an uncanny step forward in human history. Much like Victor Frankenstein, Oppenheimer never stops to consider the horrific results of his scientific achievement until it is unleashed upon the world and there’s no going back.
Interestingly, Oppenheimer is released into theaters at the same time that Hollywood writers and actors are striking largely in part because humanity has pushed the button on AI and almost instantly regretted it as well, and we are scrambling to prevent the fallout of its impact on our lives. Much like how nuclear weapons pose a lethal threat to human life, AI poses a threat to humanity itself and our way of life and experiencing our humanity. Of course, Nolan couldn’t have possibly predicted the current discourse over AI when he began working on Oppenheimer, but— much like the question of whether Batman should use the citizens of Gotham’s cell phones to create a sonar device, even if only with good intentions, in The Dark Knight— the frequent reappearance of this question in Nolan’s work is a product of the times in which we live and in which he is creating films.
It’s clear that everyone involved with Oppenheimer knew they were making something special. The film looks beautiful, especially in the IMAX format, the performances are impeccable, and the editing, score, and sound design do everything right to attain the perfect moviegoing experience. This is a movie that can be appreciated on every level and it deserves to sit alongside Nolan’s other most revered modern classics.