Oppenheimer (United Kingdom/United States, 2023)

July 19, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Oppenheimer Poster

With Oppenheimer, director Christopher Nolan steps away from the action/adventure core that has been his bread-and-butter and opts instead to channel his inner David Lean. Despite being overlong and unevenly paced, Oppenheimer contains moments of greatness and features one of the most compelling lead performances (by Cillian Murphy) in recent memory. Unfortunately, some of Nolan’s less admirable tendencies remain in evidence. Some of the artsy visuals (including black-and-white sequences and intercutting with kaleidoscopic images) feel more self-indulgent than organic. The incessant musical score becomes intrusive, especially during the first half. Sound mixing issues once again cause dialogue to be drowned out upon occasion.

Over the nearly 80 years since Oppenheimer became a household name, the media has written, re-written, and scrubbed his reputation to suit the wants and needs of various military and political agendas. Initially a hero when his role as the “father of the atom bomb” became known, his sterling image was tarnished by Cold War rumors of ties to the Soviet Union. He lived under an uncertain cloud for the better part of a decade until his receipt of the Enrico Fermi Award in 1963 brought him full circle. Nolan’s film addresses this period of Oppenheimer’s life, shifting backward and forward in time as suits the narrative trajectory.

Oppenheimer hones in on three primary periods and fills in the blanks with various flashbacks and flashforwards. The jigsaw puzzle structure enables the movie to keep from becoming trapped in the linear chronology regurgitation that hamstrings many bio-pics. Arguably, however, it limits identification with Oppenheimer. A framing device is established during the 1954 Atomic Energy Commission hearing that revoked Oppenheimer’s security clearance. A majority of the movie’s running time focuses on the establishment of the Manhattan Project and the events leading up to Trinity in July 1945. The third element of Oppenheimer (the one presented in black-and-white) takes place during the 1959 Senate confirmation hearings for Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), the one-time director of the AEC who was largely responsible for Oppenheimer’s fall from grace.

Certain relationships – in particular, the ones between Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), and his long-time mistress, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) – are underwritten and would have benefitted from additional development. Likewise, many of the scientists involved with the Manhattan Project may seem largely interchangeable to those unfamiliar with their famous names.

Oppenheimer’s crowning sequence is the 20-minute lead-up to the atomic bomb test codenamed Trinity. This is Nolan at his best, building suspense (at the time, there were concerns about a “near zero” chance that an uncontrolled chain reaction could destroy the world) up to the moment then delivering the climax in an historically accurate but unconventional fashion.

Interwoven with the development of the title character’s life story is the moral quagmire that has dogged science since time immemorial but has become more immediate in recent decades: how to decouple the discoveries of science with the ways in which they are appropriated by non-scientists. Oppenheimer’s views evolve over the course of the film. Initially a theorist, he is seduced by the possibilities of the discovery and testing. When forced to confront the implications of a post-atomic world (complete with waking-nightmare images of the human toll), he comes to understand the warnings of Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) and Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh).

Cillian Murphy’s amazing work will immediately cement him as an Oscar front-runner. His unsmiling, haunted interpretation of the tortured physicist is Shakespearean. When he utters the famous quote (“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”), it is with the horror of recognition. Unlike many psychologically conflicted characters, Oppenheimer is never made more palatable increase viewer affinity. He is cold and his underrealized relationships with the two women in his life offer little in the way of warmth. Even when presented naked, there is no vulnerability – only unapproachability.

Nolan is such a revered director that he can cast pretty much anyone he wants, even if the role is small. To that end, luminaries such as Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, and Kenneth Branagh all make supporting contributions (for Damon and Branagh, theses are return engagements). Robert Downey Jr., hidden underneath convincing aging makeup, provides the closest thing that Oppenheimer offers to a villain. Aside from Murphy, who is in about 90% of the scenes, Downey Jr. and Damon have the most screen time. Cameos are provided by a pair of Oscar winners: Casey Affleck (as the creepy Boris Pash) and Gary Oldman (as Harry Truman).

With Oppenheimer, Nolan has turned back the clock to movies like Gandhi, Patton, and Lawrence of Arabia – motion picture spectacles that tell the story of a well-known (and often controversial) historical icon without worrying too much about running time. But a key difference can’t be discounted: the importance of an intermission. All those earlier films had one and it proved to be critical in maintaining audience attentiveness (not to mention managing bladder capacity). It’s possible to keep an audience in thrall for three hours with an action-oriented film but “action” is not in Oppenheimer’s DNA. The lack of an intermission is a disservice to viewers and the movie.

Oppenheimer is an indication that Nolan refuses to be pigeonholed as a director. While there’s something to be admired about that, this isn’t a home run. Still, many of the flaws are more than compensated for by the flashes of brilliance and the strength of the central character’s presentation. This is not peak Nolan – it pales in comparison with the likes of The Dark Knight and Interstellar – but it is one of the most intriguing high-budget films of 2023.

Oppenheimer (United Kingdom/United States, 2023)