Oppenheimer review – Cillian Murphy’s finest hour

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Christopher Nolan


Cillian Murphy Emily Blunt Matt Damon


What will Nolan do next after the clever if underwhelming Tenet?


There's a whole lotta movie here, though it’s Murphy who deserves the sashes and garlands.

In Retrospect.

A juggernaut historical biopic that you'll want to see again asap, even if it doesn’t all work on the first sweep.

This combustible and relentlessly-paced biography of the “father of the the atomic bomb” is a contender for Christopher Nolan’s best film.

There’s something very moving about watching a film and being able to see dust motes float in the air. Or the reddened, mottled skin on the back of an actor’s neck. Or the abrasive textures of wood and fabric. Or drops of water causing minute ripples once they descend into a pond – a visual motif that receives its fiery analog at the slow burn climax of this grandiose new film from Christopher Nolan.

All of this is the 70mm effect, the wide-gauge film format that, due to its dimensions and design, is able to drink up details that other, lesser film stocks do not have the alchemical make-up to capture. Maybe some could argue that it’s the job of cinema to airbrush out these elements and offer a primped and manicured fantasy of reality, lest we be reminded too much of the lives we’re attempting to escape by going to see such entertainment.

Oppenheimer, a luxuriant, tactile and often nerve-shredding screen adaptation of Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin’s lauded non-fiction doorstop, ‘American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer’, sees the showman filmmaker creating a more intimate milieu for this urgently-paced and personnel-heavy historical biography.

It is a film about embracing imperfection, about being realistic with regards to who we are and what we do in this life, and the relative values of taking a chance on a maverick. Yet is also a film which accepts that the tectonic plates of history often make their earth-jogging shifts from within cramped offices or out on dusty, depopulated plains.

Indeed, at the time of an in-progress writers and actors strike in Hollywood, Oppenheimer operates as a critique by stealth as it lambasts the scowling middle-men, the steely bureaucratic enforcers, the politicians and the back-room operators whose job it is to coax in the talent they need to perform an immediate function, and then make sure they’re quickly dispensed of at the point of delivery.

Nolan attempts to be objective in his lush, realist portrait of “the father of the atomic bomb”, yet there’s a clear sense of awe at both his subject’s inquiring mind, his poise and his role as “director” on the Los Alamos “set” that was built to develop a nuclear arsenal before one of America’s many geopolitical rivals can blow them to smithereens.

In his development of the atomic bomb, Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer deadpans that the possibility of one such device destroying the world through an atmospheric chain reaction is “near zero”, which causes his more military-minded colleagues to perspire a little. But taking these chances – turning theory into practice – is the only way to find out for sure.

That said, despite the character and his world, Nolan doesn’t lean too heavily on the actual quantum physics behind this lofty endeavour. Films such as Interstellar and Tenet were hampered by the need to wrap your head around fanciful sci-fi conceits rooted in real physics, but this allows for a more immediate and dramatic experience by keeping the science simple and off-stage somewhat.

The film comprises a rushing, heady continuum of scenes which focus on the logistical ins and outs of the Manhattan Project and the eventual “Trinity” bomb tests, as well as drawing intrigue from the precarious (and, eventually, ferocious) anti-left political sentiments of the era. Nolan appears to frame Oppenheimer as someone who only sees politics in practical terms, not an ideologue or a firebrand who feels he needs to conceal his beliefs.

Many of the strongest, most tense scenes chart Oppie’s attempt to score security clearance for a range of potentially disreputable but brilliant science colleagues while fighting a war of words against the men whose job it was to filter out and eliminate possible spies (a small role by Casey Affleck offers a delicious early highlight). As a viewing experience, it’s a film which travels at the speed of Oliver Stone’s JFK, one which is also successful at keeping many plates spinning at one time. It’s rare that a film which comprises so many scenes of men talking in rooms should whip by at such a clip, especially as Nolan’s framing, blocking and movement of the camera is rarely what you’d call artistic (though it more than does the job).

Of the famously gigantic ensemble cast roped in to tell this story, there’s not a single player who feels like they’ve been given short shrift. I can see some arguing that Florence Pugh as Oppenheimer’s communist lover, and Emily Blunt’s tipsy wife Kitty are sidelined in favour of the many male protagonists, yet they both contribute small but important scenes. I would argue that Blunt is responsible for the film’s strongest moment, as she stoically takes the stand for her husband at a sham security hearing and brings home the backbone that he’s currently lacking.

But the lion share of plaudits need to go to Murphy who is extraordinary in the title role, transmitting both a boyish passion for learning and discovery and a deep if shrouded sense of paranoia and guilt that would come from revealing the contents of a Pandora’s Box for which he has the only key. His gaunt, greying, unglamorous features are emphasised by the cigarettes he smokes which look like giant white batons dangling from his lips.

On that front, he has noted that he was physically modelled on David Bowie’s character from Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, which feels apposite as this too is a film about a genius outsider coming to terms with how he has been exploited from the off. Murphy is a reliably great actor, but this is on a different plateau, a muscular and effortlessly charismatic turn in which he commands every frame he appears in.

The film falters in its final act, as the focus shifts to the backroom machinations of Robert Downey Jr’s one-time chair of the US Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss. It’s nice to see Downey outside of a metal onesie, yet his arc feels manipulated as a way to give the film some conventional closure. This is when the witch trials are at full pelt, and Nolan can’t help but present Oppenheimer as the newly-moralistic martyr, even if he himself didn’t appear to want that end. And yet there’s a paradox: if Nolan was more objectively ambivalent about his subject, does that remove some of the impetus to make the film in the first place? Does he see himself as the lone genius who just about slips out the back door with a moral victory?

Oppenheimer shares facets with Nolan’s greatest film, 2006’s The Prestige, in that it is about a man who builds a machine that, if placed into the wrong hands, has the ability to destroy lives. It also has a certain messiness to it, avoiding the hokily rigid plot schematics of Dunkirk, Interstellar and Inception. Robert Oppenheimer, too, operates in the same shady moral domain as Bruce Wayne’s Batman, a self-starting mercenary who’s bottomless financial coffers allow him to mete out punishment on those he believes to be wrongdoers.

This film is less about offering some neat, cyclical narrative, and more about navigating the twisty moral maze that comes from harnessing the power of the atom to do great damage on the world and its people. And it’s perhaps kudos to Nolan’s writing (and Murphy’s intuitive interpretation of the text) that all this comes out so cleanly. It’s not a faultless film, but it’s one that sits within the higher echelons of the oft-tawdry biopic form, and also reveals hidden depths to the Nolan project and, excitingly, suggests that we should brace ourselves for anything the next time around.

Published 19 Jul 2023

Tags: Christopher Nolan Cillian Murphy Dunkirk Emily Blunt Florence Pugh Matt Damon Tenet


What will Nolan do next after the clever if underwhelming Tenet?


There's a whole lotta movie here, though it’s Murphy who deserves the sashes and garlands.

In Retrospect.

A juggernaut historical biopic that you'll want to see again asap, even if it doesn’t all work on the first sweep.

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