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Oppenheimer (2023) Review: Infinite Complexity!

J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) standing amidst the fiery aftermath of an atomic bomb explosion. Movie poster for Oppenheimer.

Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” revolves around the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the renowned scientist and father of the atomic bomb. Beginning from Oppenheimer’s academic youth and tracing the process of creating the atomic bomb, along with the subsequent trials he faced, the film is a biographical adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” authored by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin.

Familiar with Christopher Nolan’s cinematic prowess, viewers might readily anticipate that “Oppenheimer” is no ordinary biographical film. So, as we venture into the realms of the highly anticipated 2023 release and Nolan’s latest creation, did it meet expectations? Does “Oppenheimer” stand as an average blockbuster or a cinematic masterpiece?

Who is J. Robert Oppenheimer?

The film’s namesake, Julius Robert Oppenheimer, was born in the United States in 1904, a theoretical physicist and scientist who made significant contributions to nuclear physics and quantum mechanics. He is widely regarded as one of the most prominent scientific figures of the 20th century, well-known for his groundbreaking research on nuclear reactions’ energy potential and, of course, the creation of the atomic bomb.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, holding a pipe while deep in thought, with formulas written on a chalkboard in the background.

During World War II, J. Robert Oppenheimer led the Manhattan Project, a secretive program aimed at developing the first nuclear bomb in the United States. Collaborating with other eminent scientists of his time, Oppenheimer worked on the design and development of nuclear weapons in Los Alamos, culminating in the world’s first nuclear explosion during the Trinity Test in 1945.

However, ethical and political concerns surrounding the use of nuclear weapons also affected Oppenheimer. Post-war, due to his critical views on American nuclear policies, concerns over security, and alleged communist connections, the government deemed him a risk, leading to the revocation of his federal security clearance in 1954. The stain on Oppenheimer’s name persisted until investigations cleared his reputation in 2022, one year after his passing.

Christopher Nolan and Sci-Fi Films:

In “Oppenheimer,” Nolan meticulously presents the process of developing the atomic bomb under Robert Oppenheimer’s leadership, exploring both its origins and aftermath. A true science enthusiast, Christopher Nolan‘s penchant for sci-fi themes and his penchant for collaborating with scientific minds are widely acknowledged. His realistic visualization of a black hole in the film “Interstellar” (2014) earned admiration when compared to the first actual black hole photograph taken years later.

Christopher Nolan, the director of the Oppenheimer movie, gesturing to set the camera angle, with Cillian Murphy beside him, hands in pockets, preparing for his role.

A Biography through “Oppenheimer” Film:

“Oppenheimer” delves into the lives of numerous renowned scientists, including Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi, and Werner Heisenberg, all of whom left an indelible mark on history. As we witness these figures through Christopher Nolan’s lens, we, too, experience his excitement. Indeed, “Oppenheimer” is not just a biography of Oppenheimer but also the biography of the atomic bomb itself – its conception, creation, and partly its consequences.

Nevertheless, I find that as a character-driven biographical piece, “Oppenheimer” somewhat skimps on delving into Robert Oppenheimer‘s inner world. The film primarily adopts Oppenheimer’s perspective, yet we fail to fully grasp his emotions, psychology, and inner conflicts. This might be attributed to the constant shift between multiple events and storylines, making it challenging to immerse ourselves in a specific situation or emotion before rapidly moving on to another. Furthermore, Oppenheimer’s enthusiastic and passionate demeanor during the bomb’s development is palpable, but his internal struggles after its completion receive less attention than anticipated. A few scenes, such as his triumphant speech to the project’s scientists after the successful atom bomb test, his dialogue with President Harry Truman, and the trial sequences, offer glimpses into Oppenheimer’s ethical and moral dilemmas. However, despite the film’s cinematic brilliance, it does not sufficiently delve into the main character’s psyche, especially for a three-hour biographical production.

“Oppenheimer” Film and Politics:

While “Oppenheimer” is a biographical film, it is nearly impossible for it not to reflect a political stance given its subject matter and historical context. Christopher Nolan subtly reveals his political inclination throughout the film, be it through scenes depicting the selection of cities to be targeted by the atomic bomb, the dialogue between Oppenheimer and Harry Truman in the Oval Office, or the recurring theme of a deadly weapon created for a show of power even after the war had ended. These moments leave viewers with numerous question marks and emotions regarding nuclear weapons, war, violent instruments, power-driven politicians, and scientists.

J. Robert Oppenheimer (portrayed by Cillian Murphy) wearing a hat and holding a cigarette in mouth, gazing pensively ahead in the movie Oppenheimer.

Nolan’s persistence in portraying the destructive nature of the atomic bomb permeates the film with a sense of tension. Although there are no explicit scenes of bloodshed or dismembered bodies, the constant apprehension lingers throughout (and indeed materializes with the creation of the atomic bomb). In essence, Christopher Nolan reveals the film’s essence in a dialogue between Oppenheimer and Einstein, deciphering the mystery: they fear that the atomic bomb will be the world’s end, and in a sense, it does become just that. This feeling of impending doom, coupled with the knowledge that some of the scientists involved in the project later died from cancer, leaves us constantly on edge. We watch the entire film on tenterhooks. For instance, during the atomic bomb test, even though we know no one will die, the characters’ actions – some not wearing protective goggles, leaving the shelter too late, or glancing back at the explosion too soon – give us the impression that something terrible is about to happen. The film skillfully creates a world where we feel that, ultimately, death indeed comes. “Oppenheimer” successfully conveys the magnitude and gravity of the consequences without explicitly showing them, making it perhaps one of the most intense and suspenseful productions, despite lacking explicit violent scenes.

“Oppenheimer” Film and Time Manipulation:

Christopher Nolan’s penchant for playing with time in his films is well-known, and “Oppenheimer” is no exception. The movie skillfully weaves between various narrative threads, alternating between colorful scenes from Robert Oppenheimer’s youth at Los Alamos during the bomb-making process, his academic years pre-Los Alamos, family life, and the post-Los Alamos investigation. Additionally, we are presented with black-and-white scenes from Lewis Strauss’s perspective during the court process. In classic Nolan style, the narrative isn’t presented in a linear fashion; instead, these distinct storylines are intricately interwoven, creating a colossal tapestry of characters’ ups and downs, moments of truth, and deception. Nolan’s purpose here seems to be to ensure we fully comprehend the political process of the story, while also evoking a sense of distrust in every character’s motives. “Oppenheimer” unfolds during one of the most politically chaotic periods in American history, with military and political conflicts leading up to the Cold War, turning into a witch-hunt for communists, and thousands of people facing suspicious trials, uncertain if they were falsely accused or genuine spies. It is known that Hollywood suffered significant blows during this era, enduring heavy censorship mechanisms. Consequently, the film masterfully conveys this climate of political insecurity and suspicion, employing a complex timeline.

Moments of Clarity in “Oppenheimer”: The Creation of the Atomic Bomb and Scientific Debates:

The film “Oppenheimer” finds its most stable moments in the depiction of the creation of the atomic bomb and the scientific debates among the researchers. However, whenever military officials and politicians come into play, and the scientists are drawn into political discourses and actions, the storylines become perplexing with question marks. This stark contrast in presentation reveals Nolan’s intention to portray the scientific aspects as realistic and clear, while purposefully creating uncertainty, doubt, and confusion in the political narrative. Nonetheless, one cannot help but feel that a chronological approach to presenting these various storylines might have been more effective. Despite this, it is evident that Christopher Nolan utilizes his signature time manipulation not merely for the sake of it but as a functional tool to serve the narrative.

Albert Einstein portrayed in the movie Oppenheimer, wearing a contemplative expression.

Performances in “Oppenheimer”:

The star-studded cast of “Oppenheimer” ensures that each performance is flawless, a testament to Christopher Nolan’s remarkable directorial skills in handling actors. Moreover, the film boasts an ensemble of exceptionally talented names. From Matt Damon, who contributes significantly as Leslie Groves, to Gary Oldman, who excels in his brief appearance as President Harry Truman, every actor delivers an impressive performance. Notable standouts include Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock, Josh Hartnett as Ernest Lawrence, Benny Safdie as Edward Teller, Alden Ehrenreich as the Senate Aide, and Jason Clarke as Roger Robb. However, special mention must go to Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, and Robert Downey Jr., who lead the film with remarkable prowess.

Cillian Murphy Shines in “Oppenheimer”:

Cillian Murphy, who shoulders the weight of “Oppenheimer,” showcases an exceptional mastery in portraying J. Robert Oppenheimer, hinting at a strong contender for the 2024 Oscars. While we acknowledged that the film does not heavily focus on Oppenheimer’s internal conflicts and emotions throughout the three-hour runtime, Murphy’s performance remarkably highlights the power of facial expressions and subtle acting. Every moment of doubt, joy, excitement, pride, suspicion, and hesitation in the character’s mind is visible in Cillian Murphy’s smallest glance and expression.

Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss in “Oppenheimer”:

In the black-and-white storyline, Robert Downey Jr. takes on the role of Lewis Strauss, the central character in the film’s narrative. It is known that Downey Jr. is an accomplished actor with a remarkable filmography, although he has rarely had the opportunity to showcase depth in his performances. However, his role and performance in “Oppenheimer” hint at Robert Downey Jr.’s potential to be a strong contender for Best Supporting Actor awards.

Lewis Strauss (played by Robert Downey Jr.) in the movie Oppenheimer, seated confidently with a smug expression, glancing slightly to the left.

Emily Blunt’s Performance as Katherine Oppenheimer:

Emily Blunt, portraying Katherine (Kitty) Oppenheimer in the film, seizes the chance to demonstrate her acting prowess by revealing different aspects of the character towards the latter part of the film. Initially presented as a one-dimensional figure, Kitty evolves into a more intriguing character, offering the audience a glimpse of her complexities, particularly in the scenes related to “Oppenheimer’s trial.”

Women in Christopher Nolan’s Cinema:

Speaking of the portrayal of neurotic female characters, it is impossible not to mention Christopher Nolan’s consistent letdown in this aspect. Unfortunately, Nolan’s tendency to depict neurotic female characters is evident in his body of work. While it is his prerogative as a screenwriter and director to create male-centric films, his female characters often remain on the periphery of the story or are limited to two stereotypical roles: supportive partner/lover/child or neurotic figures. We see both of these archetypes in films such as “Memento,” “The Prestige,” “Inception,” “The Dark Knight,” and “Interstellar.”

In “Oppenheimer,” the neurotic female archetype is represented not just through one but two characters: Jean Tatlock and Katherine Oppenheimer. Thankfully, Katherine’s character is fleshed out with different dimensions as the film progresses, slightly breaking away from the superficial approach. Nonetheless, it would be gratifying for the audience to witness Christopher Nolan writing female characters with more depth and complexity beyond the constraints of his idealized or antagonistic perception of women.

Oppenheimer’s Famous Quote: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Beyond the scientific community, Robert Oppenheimer is also recognized in popular culture for his famous quote: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” The film depicts Oppenheimer saying this line not during the first atomic bomb test, as one might expect, but rather during an intimate scene with Jean Tatlock. Surprisingly, this moment serves as a foreshadowing, as we observe the destructive nature of his relationships with women. In the backdrop of a politically chaotic era, where betrayals and half-hearted alliances prevail, Oppenheimer’s personal life mirrors the theme of destruction. As one of the masterminds behind the infamous atomic bomb, Oppenheimer’s character also exhibits a personal capacity for destruction. The film utilizes this iconic quote as a tool to explore Robert’s representation, even in the context of an unexpected scene. This scene serves not only as a summary of Oppenheimer’s tumultuous relationships with women but also as a foreshadowing of Jean Tatlock’s later, mysterious death—whether by suicide or murder, a question the film leaves open for interpretation.

J. Robert Oppenheimer (portrayed by Cillian Murphy) wearing goggles, observing the brilliant, powerful glow of the atomic bomb during testing in the movie Oppenheimer.

Is “Oppenheimer” a Successful Film?

Released on July 21, “Oppenheimer” has already achieved significant success, grossing a whopping $174 million worldwide during its opening weekend. In cinematic terms, the film is remarkable in various aspects, including performances, editing, storytelling, and sound design. Thus, answering the initial question, “Oppenheimer” transcends the standard of a mere box office movie. However, despite all its commendable aspects, when assessing Christopher Nolan’s filmography, “Oppenheimer” does not quite reach the level of a masterpiece. Nonetheless, the film manages to keep its audience engaged and tense throughout its three-hour runtime, despite not being a thriller, through skillful narrative design, leaving a lasting impact with its well-crafted, hard-hitting presentation.

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Last modified: July 30, 2023