If you’re a fan of filmmaker Christopher Nolan and have always wondered what it would be like were he to try his hand at a biographical movie, then this is your year. Based on the book “American Prometheus: The Triumph & Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, it follows the journey of the renowned scientist as he embarks upon The Manhattan Project and the creation of the atom bomb.
Coming in with a three hour runtime and shot entirely with IMAX cameras, “Oppenheimer” is expectedly epic.
The vistas of New Mexico taking turns with Cillian Murphy’s steely gaze in filling the screen. As one might expect of such a project, Nolan gives us a biopic unstuck in time, with two main timelines (1: fission, in color, “subjective” as per Nolan; and 2: fusion, black and white, “objective”), the first about Oppenheimer’s life from graduate student to director of The Manhattan Project and beyond, the second about a confirmation hearing of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr., in his best post-Iron Man role/performance yet).
The timelines intercut, tightening as it goes on in a helical dance, resulting in a third hour that feels like an almost different movie, where it enters “JFK”-like conspiracy territory.The film doesn’t just open across “Barbie,” it also seems to have been in a separate competition altogether, about who could cast the most people. It’s no surprise that when Christopher Nolan calls, all agents stop what they’re doing and listen. Matt Damon was supposed to be on a break from acting when he got the call, and Nolan was on the “exception list.”
Recent Best Actor Oscar winner Rami Malek has what is effectively a bit part with a scant few lines of dialogue. Among the participants, aside from Nolan mainstay Cillian Murphy, there is Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Casey Affleck, Kenneth Branagh, Josh Hartnett, Gary Oldman, Matthew Modine, David Krumholtz, Dane DeHaan, Jason Clarke, Olivia Thirlby, Jack Quaid, Alden Ehrenreich and Benny Safdie, among others. All of them rise to the occasion of working with Nolan and the material tackled. Blunt and Pugh are their usual terrific selves, Murphy has been waiting for this kind of opportunity forever and doesn’t disappoint (it’s so different if you’re only familiar with him via “Peaky Blinders”), but some standout surprises include Hartnett, Krumholtz and Safdie, aside from the aforementioned Downey Jr.
“Oppenheimer” has a lot on its mind: causality, moral obligation and responsibility, accountability and the runtime allows Nolan to go over these themes, letting them play out over the canvas that is Murphy’s face as he faces temptations and impossible decisions, driven and pushed seemingly as much by fate as his own ambition. With family members slain by Nazis, there was an imperative pushing the actions of the scientists at Los Alamos, even if their efforts would be unleashed on citizens as well.
It’s a question that’s been grappled with since the war, and it’s only one of the dozen or so conundrums that Nolan wishes to explore. Others include “What price genius?,” “How canny was Oppenheimer with regard to the politicking above him?,” that last one a teasing sliver in the third hour that plays like a paranoia thriller from the ’70s.
There is bravura filmmaking here, from Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography to Ludwig Göransson’s violin-based score to Ruth De Jong’s production design: so much faithful attention to detail melded with an artist’s interpretation makes for a continuation of Nolan’s more fanciful side last seen in “Dunkirk,” where it’s almost textural. With no CG, all the in-camera practical effects stand out further, inspired by the pioneer filmmakers working in labs.At three hours, “Oppenheimer” is also expectedly dense, with a large cast of characters and spanning decades.
There’s talk of quantum physics and communism and philosophy, though you don’t need to grasp every detail to follow what’s going on. The story is told emotionally, through the actors’ faces, and in the “audiovisual experience” Nolan has worked carefully on (the sound design is sure to test the limits of home theater systems in the future).
The momentum takes a drop after the Trinity Test explosion, though the tension is still there as a trap seems to be coiling itself around Oppenheimer. At one point a character outright says aloud what is effectively the film’s thesis statement, and while ordinarily one might cringe at such broad strokes it is actually a reminder that Nolan is and has always been a pop filmmaker, one that has been successful at maintaining his own style and letting the audience adjust to him instead of the other way around. In this, “Oppenheimer” as it exists in this form could only have been done by him.
Other filmmakers would have likely presented a more straightforward biopic but Nolan wanted to disassemble the pieces, examine them and reassemble them in a more interesting, kinetic, dramatic fashion, one that’s worthy of his subject.