“Oppenheimer” is the latest film from renowned filmmaker Christopher Nolan. It stars Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project which developed the first atomic bomb. The film follows Oppenheimer’s journey from shy college student to cocky professor to persecuted outcast.
One of the main selling points of the film is the technology behind it; the first black-and-white IMAX film stock was invented specifically for this film and Nolan infamously avoided any CGI. The film is photographed to perfection by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, whose visuals are often a representation of Oppenheimer’s thoughts more than literal imagery. Ludwig Göransson’s haunting and exhilarating score is another standout. It’s an incredibly creative piece which incorporates sound beats from certain scenes into the music itself. For example, the crackles of Geiger counters and the booming stomps of fellow scientists are part of the music for their respective scenes.
Cillian Murphy’s work as the title character is undoubtedly the best part of the film. Absolute perfection. He’s not merely doing an imitation of the real-life Oppenheimer, but instead creating an entire character for the audience to connect to, while also not always being sure of his motives. Like Oppenheimer, the portrayal is deeply ambiguous, all punctuated by Murphy’s scorching eyes. This is one of the greatest leading performances of the decade thus far. The film requires Murphy to hold its entire weight on his shoulders and he laughs at the challenge.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, as Nolan has repeatedly said, is one of the most important people who’ve ever lived. Nolan smartly chose to portray him as realistically as possible, basking him in all his flaws, mainly his obstructive ego and indecisiveness. Yet he’s also an incredibly charismatic and remarkable man whose genius is absolutely inspiring. Nolan’s passion for this subject is evident in the screenplay, which is his most creative since “The Prestige.”
In the past, Nolan has always struggled with making his conversations both compelling and natural, and he’s finally cracked the code in “Oppenheimer.” The dialogue is razor sharp here and he does a terrific job of making all the science mumbo jumbo easily understandable for the audience.
However, this film becomes deeply frustrating during the third act. The first two acts (which run about 2h 15m) are borderline flawless, with all the riveting character work and tension you’d want as it tells the creation of the bomb. Then when we head toward the finale, Nolan fumbles the ball a bit and creates a mixed bag. Firstly, the third act is tonally all over the place. The entire film leading up to the finale is extremely grounded and almost documentarian, only to be interrupted by a cartoonish scene with Gary Oldman’s President Truman, a portrayal which couldn’t be more goofy and historically inaccurate. As soon as Oldman walks toward the camera with that laughable fat-suit, we’re in trouble.
Additionally, the third act doesn’t know what it wants to be about. Is it a series of FBI interrogations about communist activities? Is it a story about the rivalry between Lewis Strauss and Oppenheimer? Or is it what it should be, a study of the immense guilt and inner torment that haunted Oppenheimer ever since the bomb was dropped? That’s what’s most interesting about Oppenheimer’s story. The “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds” moments. The film definitely has some of those, and when this aspect of Oppenheimer is explored it’s phenomenal, but that needed to take precedent over the other concluding elements. The movie doesn’t have as many gut-punching emotions as it needs because its ending is so cluttered.
My point is proven by the final scene, which is undoubtedly bound to be iconic. It brings that frightening air needed to close out the film with a— pun somewhat intended — bang, covering the horrors Oppenheimer inadvertently unleashed upon our future and plunging him into that Promethean fire… but there should’ve been more scenes like it in the last 45 minutes.
My final issue with the film is a microscopic one but it needs to be mentioned nonetheless: the sex scenes. I’m not a prude, but they were entirely out of place and unnecessary. I don’t want to spoil much so I’ll be vague: the first one was an inexcusably lazy and misplaced reveal of the “I am become Death” line, and the second was oddly A24-esque and so absurd that it elicited laughs from the audience in my theater.
“Oppenheimer” is the latest movie to be wrongfully crowned a “masterpiece” by critics, but it’s still another solid film from Christopher Nolan thanks to the once-in-a-lifetime performance by Cillian Murphy, astonishing technical achievements, and brilliant imagery. If the film maintained its momentum all the way through, it might just have earned that masterpiece title.