Both a probing character study and a sweeping account of history, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a brainy, brawny thriller about the man who led the Manhattan Project to build the bomb that ended World War II. To dispense with the inevitable weapon of mass destruction metaphors, it’s more slow-burn than explosive. But perhaps the most surprising element of this audacious epic is that the scramble for atomic armament ends up secondary to the scathing depiction of political gamesmanship, as one of the most brilliant scientific minds of the 20th century is vilified for voicing learned opinions that go against America’s arms-race thinking.
Chiseling Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherman’s whopping definitive biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, from 700-plus pages into a three-hour screenplay, Nolan hasn’t entirely streamlined the dense plot.
It can feel like a talky thicket of scenes in which men in mid-century business attire stand around in offices and labs having animated discussions about quantum mechanics, which at times lack the elucidation to afford non-physicists much access. It’s a relief when, about an hour in, one of the ever-expanding lineup of theoreticians plops marbles into glass containers to demonstrate the difference between uranium and plutonium as fusion bomb components.
But there’s a method to Nolan’s approach, which becomes increasingly apparent as the two separate Washington hearings laced throughout the narrative intersect in the foreground and occupy the riveting final hour. And the emotionally affecting decision to close with an earlier private conversation between Cillian Murphy’s J. Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) elegantly brings it all back to the personal views of two men looking at their branch of science from different perspectives.
While the four-act structure asks a lot of the film’s audience, our patience and concentration are amply rewarded as the 1945 “Trinity” test in the New Mexico desert makes way for the devastating bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That defining moment in modern human history — crowning Oppenheimer as an American hero even as corrosive moral qualms play out across Murphy’s expressive face — then segues to a stomach-churning 1954 witch hunt, representing the most vile smear tactics of the McCarthy era.
Nolan expertly builds his dramatic crescendo by exposing the pain and humiliation of that hearing for Oppenheimer and his flinty wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) and then reopening those wounds five years later, during the Eisenhower administration’s Senate confirmation hearings for the nomination of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) as Secretary of Commerce.
In a mighty ensemble of heavy-hitters, Downey gives the drama’s standout performance as Strauss, a founding member, and later chair, of the Atomic Energy Commission, whose political ambitions get tangled in his vindictiveness toward the arrogant Oppenheimer.
The actor makes him mild-mannered at first, playing up Strauss’ origins as a humble shoe salesman. The ruthlessness with which he pursues his goals is displayed only toward the end, when the stakes are at their highest, spilling out in a bitter torrent of rage. It’s a stunning moment of revelation and a reminder of skills that many of our best actors have put aside while they frolic around playing quippy superheroes for huge wads of cash.
Unexpectedly, I found it was the late-action intrigue — parallel strands unfolding in a dingy Capitol Hill conference room and in the Senate chamber — that left me breathlessly anticipating each new development, each betrayal and show of loyalty, each disclosure of who was pulling the strings. The extended set-up prior to the Trinity test becomes more vital in retrospect, as we see how Oppenheimer’s associations both before and after he and his Manhattan Project team relocated to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to accelerate development of the atomic bomb, are dissected by political operators looking to discredit him.
As the central figure in this erudite saga of men and science, warfare and Washington opportunism, Murphy builds a fine-grained character portrait, making the soft-spoken Oppenheimer’s complexities no less evident for being a man of such outward restraint.
The actor’s piercing pale blue eyes are a window to the physicist’s lofty intellect, his dogged determination, and eventually, to his torment as he comes to acknowledge his naivety and face the ramifications of what he has set in motion. Rather than startle the world into playing nice, as he had ingenuously imagined, the Japanese bombings merely opened a door to the Cold War, and to the escalating threat of more powerful nuclear bombs — one which resonates louder than ever today.
Coverage of Oppenheimer’s early years feels somewhat cursory and his encounters with like-minded scientists initially tend to blur, though his studies at prestigious colleges in Europe — in addition to facilitating encounters with some of the field’s most influential figures — serve to show that his skills lay in theoretical physics, not lab work. But little by little, distinct personalities emerge.
Oppenheimer’s peers associated with the Manhattan Project, a handful of Nobel Prize winners among them, include his longtime friend Isidore Rabi (David Krumholtz, wonderful), his UC Berkeley colleague Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett) and the hot-tempered Hungarian Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), whose real interest is in developing a hydrogen bomb, causing him to butt heads amusingly with others in the think tank.
Subtle notes of humor also come from the man that recruits Oppenheimer, Major Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), who oversees the secret research and development project and provides the liaison between the government and the scientists. A gruff career military man probably better suited to the battlefield than to War Department jobs, Groves has a stern manner but an underlying respect for Oppenheimer’s genius, a duality that Damon plays to moving effect in the 1954 hearing.
Blunt’s role at first seems limited to the supportive wife, urging her husband to fight harder for his reputation. But she has a knockout scene in the same hearing, disavowing her pre-marital affiliation to the American Communist Party without apologizing for it.
Kitty also shows her emotional resilience when confronted with her husband’s troubled romantic attachment to psychiatrist Jean Tatlock, a role brought to sensual but tortured life by Florence Pugh. Jean’s strong ties to Communism contribute to suspicions about Oppenheimer’s leftist leanings, as do those of his younger brother and fellow physicist, Frank (Dylan Arnold).
In small but significant roles, Casey Affleck pops up as a wily military intelligence officer; Rami Malek plays an experimental physicist who speaks passionately for the science community during the Strauss Senate hearing; Kenneth Branagh brings his usual authority to Danish physicist Niels Bohr, whose cautionary words prove prophetic; and Jason Clarke is a chilling attack dog as the special counsel at the 1954 hearing. An unbilled (and almost unrecognizable) major-name actor appears in one terrific scene in which President Truman bluntly informs Oppenheimer that people will remember who dropped the bomb, not who built it.
Aiding immeasurably in Nolan’s unfaltering control of tone and tension is Jennifer Lame’s nimble editing and especially Ludwig Göransson’s extraordinarily forceful, almost wall-to-wall score. The music combines with the bone-shaking sound design to give the movie a febrile energy that won’t quit, mirroring the nervous inner life of its title character.
The director deftly cranks up the suspense in the nail-biting countdown to the Trinity test, when even the sharpest minds haven’t ruled out the “near zero” chance of a chain reaction destroying the world; and even more so as each of the two hearings (shot in black and white) reaches its climax. The choice not to show the Japanese bombings, but to experience them exclusively via radio reports and through the jubilant reaction of the Los Alamos community — an entire township built expressly for the Manhattan Project — heightens the gut-punch impact, while images flashing through Oppenheimer’s mind only hint at the horror unleashed.
It’s hard to know how the Nolan fanboys will respond to a movie as heady, historically curious and grounded in gravitas as Oppenheimer, which has little in common with the brooding majesty of his Batman movies or the tricky mindfuckery of films like Inception or Tenet. In terms of its stirring solemnity, it’s perhaps closest to Dunkirk, while its melding of science and emotion recalls Interstellar.
The major draw for hardcore film geeks will be the visuals. Shooting with large-format Panavision and IMAX 65mm cameras, DP Hoyte van Hoyteme (in his fourth collaboration with Nolan) brings visceral intensity to the Trinity sequence and extraordinary texture and depth of field to the many dialogue-driven scenes. If you’re lucky enough to be near one of the 30 screens worldwide showing the film in IMAX 70mm, you’ll experience a movie that, even at its talkiest, exerts an immersive hold, pulling you in to absorb the molecular detail of every shot.
This is a big, ballsy, serious-minded cinematic event of a type now virtually extinct from the studios. It fully embraces the contradictions of an intellectual giant who was also a deeply flawed man, his legacy complicated by his own ambivalence toward the breakthrough achievement that secured his place in the history books.