“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Filmmaker Christopher Nolan opens his latest cinematic epic, Oppenheimer, with the infamous quote from the Bhagavad Gita. Having come to be closely associated with the ‘father of the atomic bomb’, the weighty phrase truly sets the tone for this riveting and layered look at J. Robert Oppenheimer and the physicist’s life before and after leading the world-altering Manhattan Project.
Based on the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, the film tracks the infamous scientist (portrayed by Cillian Murphy) from his days at Harvard, Cambridge and Göttingen – meeting great minds like Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) and Werner Heisenberg – to his winning of the Enrico Fermi Award in the final few years of his life. Not content to produce a simple biopic of the man, Nolan spends the majority of the film jumping back and forth between the race against the clock to develop the atomic bomb ahead of the Axis powers during World War II and the Red Scare politics of the Cold War. In the former, Oppenheimer is tapped to head up the entire project devoted to building the world’s first nuclear weapon by General Groves (Matt Damon), in the latter, the ‘hero’ of WWII is forced to fight to retain his government security clearance in the face of accusations of disloyalty and in light of his past association with card-carrying members of the Communist Party.
Perhaps most impressively, the film manages to bombard us with the inner workings of the theoretical physicist’s mind without ever truly giving the man away. His reasoning and his motivations seem crystal clear but also mired in uncertainty. In Murphy, the filmmaker has found his perfect Oppenheimer. Marking their fourth major collaboration (after Batman Begins, Inception and Dunkirk), the Irish actor embodies the physicist as if he was born to play the role. He captures the historic figure’s manic genius and hits all the right notes on his charm, his womanizing, and his frustratingly opaque convictions. When one of Oppenheimer’s fellow scientists, Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), bemoans the leader’s lack of transparency of thought, it’s hard not to vehemently nod in agreement. But perhaps that’s what makes the man so fascinating, and exactly why he remains ripe for exploration more than half a century after his passing.
Though some may see the film’s runtime as excessive, Nolan earns almost every moment both with Murphy at the forefront and with help from the talented team he’s assembled both in front of and behind the camera. Murphy is supported by a stellar group of actors at the top of their game, including particularly impressive turns from Safdie, Robert Downey Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, David Krumholtz, and Jason Clarke. Downey Jr. – clearly having an absolute blast as Lewis Strauss (pun intended) – looks to be a shoo-in for a Best Supporting Actor nod come Oscar season, as does Murphy for his lead performance.
Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera provides Oppenheimer’s epic scale, lingering on the vistas of New Mexico, the holocausts within an atomic chain reaction, and the subtle emotion in Murphy’s ridiculously expressive eyes. Meanwhile, Ludwig Göransson’s score and the film’s sound design perfectly underscore the suspense, crawling under the skin of the audience and pushing the narrative inexorably forward. The combination of all three leads to a veritable cinematic feast for the senses, unlike anything else film-goers will have experienced this year.
If the film has a noticeable flaw, it comes in how the film treats the main women in Oppenheimer’s life. Emily Blunt (as Kitty Puening) and Florence Pugh (as Jean Tatlock) both turn in strong and memorable performances, but their parts feel largely underwritten compared to their male cinematic counterparts. Though character motivations are kept deliberately murky throughout, regardless of gender, there are some essential pieces to both Kitty and Jean that feel more like forgotten gaps than purposeful puzzles. Given the film clocks in at 180 minutes, it seems as if there could’ve been a few more minutes devoted to the women to allow for a deeper understanding of both.
That said, in delving into the history of this incredibly complicated figure, Oppenheimer forces us to confront some of recent history’s greatest moral questions, and with them, our biggest failings. Not just with the ethics of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear deterents, but in how we deal with differences of personality, and of thought and politics. As our contemporary world barrels both toward unprecedented change but also looks to regress to the politics of fear and division that marred the mid-20th century, it also makes us look far more intimately at ourselves and reflect on the kind of world we truly want to inhabit.
It’s no secret that many critics held up Oppenheimer as the prestige picture to beat this year, with article after article filled with lofty expectations of both Nolan and the film as a whole. What’s perhaps more surprising is that not only has the film met most of those expectations, but it’s possibly even exceeded them. Through powerful performances, filmmakers at the top of their game, and well-timed greater ethical conversations, Oppenheimer has not only become the film to beat this year, but of many years to come.