Oppenheimer review: Christopher Nolan’s least accessible and bravest film to date

BySuchin Mehrotra
Jul 20, 2023 02:59 PM IST

Oppenheimer movie review: At its core, the Christopher Nolan film is about the messy, deeply unnerving intersection between science and politics.

Who was J Robert Oppenheimer? A physicist famously referred to as the ‘father of the atomic bomb’, yes. But aside from him developing nuclear warfare, I have no idea. I stepped into Christopher Nolan’s most dizzyingly challenging work yet with no prior knowledge of who Oppenheimer was, what his story was, or the specifics and significance of what he did. I was hoping the movie – which is based on Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin’s book American Prometheus – would tell me. Also read: Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer sells 90000 tickets for opening day, Barbie advance booking stands at 16000 in India

Oppenheimer movie review: Cillian Murphy-starrer crafts a piece of cinema that may not serve as spectacle, but it certainly is epic.
Oppenheimer movie review: Cillian Murphy-starrer crafts a piece of cinema that may not serve as spectacle, but it certainly is epic.

Film gives glimpse into Oppenheimer's mind

Nolan’s latest is about the man (played by a bravura Cillian Murphy), who changed the course of human history, and his complicated relationship with his own legacy. It’s an effective ‘biopic’ to the extent that it refuses to blandly blaze through bullet points and rattle off a set of highlights from his life. Instead, it takes you inside his mind. Often quite literally.

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Using Oppenheimer’s 1954 trial and cross-examination as a narrative device – which took place years after the horrific 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings that cost over 200,000 lives – the film takes us through his early years. We’re introduced to young Robert studying his way through Europe’s most renowned institutions. He’s the kind of brilliant mind, who casually learns conversational German over a few months so he can deliver a lecture on quantum physics in Germany.

Cursed with knowledge and burdened by genius, he sees the matter and atoms that make up the world around him. Robert quite literally sees the vibrancy of life. One fellow academic compares it to “being able to hear the music”. To give us a glimpse into his singular mind, Jennifer Lame’s visceral editing intercuts Robert’s conversations with people, with visuals of hauntingly beautiful explosions, collapsing stars, and chemical reactions.

That is until years later, when he witnesses his work leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, leaving him forever changed. His life’s work - the theory and possibilities he’s held so dear becomes a horrific reality. In an instant, ideas and innovation become atrocity. From that moment on, he no longer sees glimpses of life, atoms, or matter. All he sees is death and destruction.

Oppenheimer vs Nolan's other films

The dense first hour of Oppenheimer is a task to follow, as we’re assaulted with information and thrown into a frenzy of names, places, and events in quick, furious succession. Robert’s teaching days of introducing quantum mechanics to the US, his proximity to the communist party, his turbulent relationship with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), him getting involved with the war against the Nazis, and being brought on to the Manhattan Project. All together. All at once. A film that demands all of you, in order to keep up. Oppenheimer is not a movie that tells a story as much as one that expects you to know that story in order to entirely engage with it.

It’s why Oppenheimer is Nolan’s least accessible, and perhaps bravest, movie to date. Key to his glorious filmmaking style is that even if you don’t follow every beat of his movies, there are always concepts, ideas and worlds to relish and be taken by. They work on multiple levels. The broad strokes of his films work for wider audiences, whilst also offering further layers and artistry to engage with for those wanting to go deeper.

Put simply, even idiots love Inception. Heady psychological thrills aside, Memento has an excellent central gimmick to grasp onto. Tenet, for all its delirium, is an immensely engaging puzzle within a slick action movie. Even Dunkirk had booming scale as an immersive war movie that placed us on the front lines. But Oppenheimer has no such genre facade to hide behind. Instead, the film’s massive-ness comes from its overpowering, bone-shaking use of sound, and the implications of this story of how Robert Oppenheimer gave mankind the tools of our own destruction.

Instead, the film works best when it’s at its simplest, particularly in the stellar last hour, where the sprawling, ambitious narrative comes to its grand crescendo.

Walking out of the film, I didn’t know whether to be taken by how much Nolan wants to challenge his audience or be put off by his refusal to give us more digestible storytelling. To be dejected by how much detail there is to get lost in and be overwhelmed by, or be impressed by how much stays with you despite that. The thunderous craft, the rich artistry, the command over our heart rates, the tremendous cast full of unlikely, familiar faces.

Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock and Cillian Murphy as J Robert Oppenheimer in a scene from Oppenheimer. (Universal Pictures)
Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock and Cillian Murphy as J Robert Oppenheimer in a scene from Oppenheimer. (Universal Pictures)

Impressive cast

David Krumholtz as Isidor Isaac Rabi, Josh Hartnett as Ernest Lawrence, Alden Ehrenreich as Rich Feynman, an excellent Tom Conti as Albert Einstein - arguably responsible for the film's finest scenes. It was also magnificent to see Robert Downey Jr (RDJ) the actor again, here as “antagonist” Lewis Strauss. It’s a very curious casting move to have RDJ – a man who spent the last decade playing a superhero, who’s an egotistical genius – here playing a man, who has all of the ego and none of the genius, but is cursed to be surrounded by them. Not to mention a commanding Emily Blunt as Robert’s wife Kitty Oppenheimer. While I remain unimpressed by Nolan’s female characters, Kitty gets one of the film’s most rousing, crowd-pleasing scenes which is an absolute joy to watch.

At its core, Oppenheimer is about the messy, deeply unnerving intersection between science and politics. How selfish, self-serving leaders are awarded unbridled power. How wars and governments corrupt, contaminate, and bastardize science. Would you truly want peace if your life’s pathbreaking work has been to build a bomb? Is it all in service of your country, or is a world on the brink of war merely the ideal circumstance to enable your work? To answer these questions, Nolan examines one pathetic US government tragedy after the other. The atomic bomb was built to fight the Nazis. But with Hitler defeated, it’s almost as if America’s leaders had a shiny new toy with no use for it. So they imagined one. “It's no longer Hitler that's the greatest threat to the world. It's our work” someone says to Robert.

Memorable moment of the film

In one scene, a group of leading US officials casually discuss which Japanese city to eradicate off the face of the Earth. One of them gently offers that it shouldn’t be Kyoto because “it’s a beautiful city. My wife and I honeymoon there”. To see such soul-shattering loss of life approached with such heartless indifference is heartbreaking.

Arguably the most memorable moment of the film comes just after The Trinity Test – the first successful test of the atomic bomb. After much bated breath, as soon as it goes off, we don’t see the explosion itself, but merely the reaction on Oppenheimer’s face. It’s a moment of relief. Of seeing his genius recognised. His theory made reality. Similarly, we’re never made to see the horrors of Hiroshima itself, but merely the look on his face as he watches the images of the aftermath and the destruction he wrought. I did find it curious, however, that the film’s clearest objective is to have us feel for Robert and how his government turned on him, and not the staggering loss of life in Japan.

Through its blistering tale of destruction, Oppenheimer deconstructs the idea of what a “biopic” should be. A statement of facts peppered with context and perspective? Or something greater? The end of a conversation, or the beginning of one? In asking us a series of important questions, Christopher Nolan crafts a piece of cinema that may not serve as spectacle, but it certainly is epic.

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