By Andrew Warren, Staff Writer
Oppenheimer is directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer (or Oppie for short). The film centers on the life of the man who invented the atomic bomb. The film spans his career as a young physics student, to his time at Los Alamos working on the Manhattan Project, and finally the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Rounding out the cast are, Robert Downey Jr as Lewis Strauss, a pragmatic senator hiding a simmering temper, Emily Blunt as Kitty, Oppie’s deeply unhappy wife, Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock, Oppenheimer’s communist paramour, and Matt Damon as General Groves, the army man in charge of keeping all the scientists at Los Alamos in line.
When Tenet was released in 2020, a common criticism was of its sound mixing. The background noise overpowered the dialogue frequently throughout the film. Considering that Tenet is a very complicated sci-fi film with original time travel mechanics, the lack of clarity damaged the experience of the film for most. Christopher Nolan, the director, felt differently. “I don’t agree with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue,” Nolan said. “Clarity of story, clarity of emotions — I try to achieve that in a very layered way using all the different things at my disposal — picture and sound. I’ve always loved films that approach sound in an impressionistic way and that is an unusual approach for a mainstream blockbuster, but I feel it’s the right approach for this experiential film.”
I thought that comment was incredibly misguided when I first read it. After seeing Oppenheimer, my opinion has shifted. There are a lot of scientific conversations that I did not understand. Arguments over nuclear reactions, hydrogen, fission, and isotopes that just went way over my head. I would have been completely lost had it not been for the score composed by Ludwig Göransson. The emotions attached to each new development in Oppie’s research is perfectly conveyed via this music. It is exciting, chaotic, nerve-wracking, and somber all at once.
The majority of Nolan’s film’s play with chronology and time. Oppenheimer is no different. The story alternates between three different points in history. The earliest track is Oppie’s career, beginning as a university student in Germany. The next track takes place at a government hearing, where Oppie is being questioned about his entire life. The last track is entirely about Strauss, who’s being interrogated by congress about his experiences with Oppenheimer. The script jumps from track to track to track. Strauss will reference something Oppie did during the past, Oppie will be asked about that event during his own cross examination, and then that event will be depicted in the earliest timeline. The editor is Jennifer Lame, and she did a terrific job. There are only editors I can name off the top of my head and she is one of them.
This decision, to not tell the story in a straightforward manner, accomplishes two things. It allows Nolan to cover a lot of Oppenheimer’s life, and it conforms the events to a three-act-structure. Had Oppenheimer been told chronologically, the story would have felt very lopsided. You would follow a scientist as he rises to the top of his field and builds the atomic bomb. And then there would be another hour about how he got into a fight with a prideful senator who disagreed with him on foreign policy. That second half is noticeably smaller in scope and would come as extraneous. But by incorporating those elements from the very beginning of the film, it’s as essential as anything else.
With a cast of this caliber, it comes as no surprise that the acting is perfect. Cillian Murphy gives the best performance of his career as Oppenheimer. He plays it very modestly. For most of the movie, Oppie feels fear and regret about his role in the Manhattan Project, and is never given an opportunity to release those emotions. He just holds onto them. Oppenheimer doesn’t have a “big scene,” at least not one with words, but his facial reactions are haunting.
Robert Downey Jr. finally gets to act outside of a green screen in Atlanta, and it’s a delight. He does what he does best: playing an arrogant man saying clever lines quickly. Politicians are always putting on a performance, and Lewis Strauss is very much a politician. But at certain points Strauss’s true bitter, angry self, breaks through and that’s where Downey shines.
The only weak elements I found in the film were Oppie’s romantic relationships. Romantic subplots are rarely satisfying to me, and Oppenheimer is no exception. Given how dense this film is, not enough time is devoted to Oppenheimer’s marriage or his affairs. As a result, certain emotional beats weren’t as resonant as the filmmaker intended. Other than that, it’s a perfect film.
This isn’t my favorite Nolan movie, but it may just be his masterpiece. He’s assembled the best actors, the best composer, the best editor, best cinematographer, and written a screenplay that’s educational, haunting, exhilarating, and kind of funny, to tell the story of a man doomed to live forever in guilt of his greatest accomplishment. Kind of makes you wonder how Nolan feels about The Dark Knight today, in light of the dominant hold superheroes have over the cinema landscape.