Star Rating:


Director: Christopher Nolan

Actors: Florence Pugh, Matt Damon, Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt

Release Date: Friday 21st July 2023

Genre(s): Biopic, Drama

Running time: 180 minutes

In 1954, Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) is called before a secret hearing of the Atomic Energy Commission to delve into his apparent leanings towards Communism early in his career. Through his testimony, Oppenheimer recounts his tumultuous affair with Communist writer Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), his marriage to Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt), and most of all, his work leading the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos with General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) and how it brought him into conflict with Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), a powerful Washington player with an axe to grind...

There's a kind of grandiose scale to 'Oppenheimer' that is often missing from movies that don't include some variation of a superhero. To be clear, 'Oppenheimer' is not a superhero movie. In fact, it's the exact opposite of one. Throughout the entire movie, we are seeing Robert Oppenheimer - Oppy to his followers - with all of his eccentricities, his romantic failings, his hubris, and his achievements laid completely bare. Cillian Murphy is able to shoulder this all and still cede screen time on a frequent basis to the likes of Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Emily Blunt, Tom Conti, Benny Safdie, Kenneth Branagh, to say nothing of Robert Downey Jr. - who is, in effect, the antagonist of the entire piece.

At three hours in total, 'Oppenheimer' leaves nothing to chance. We see Oppenheimer as a young man, drinking in the freedom of the twenties and exploring Europe and learning from the great minds of his time; his wide reading and his brilliance took inspiration from 'Das Kapital' to 'Bhagavad Gita' where a key quote is inserted into the middle of a sex scene with some weird, unsettling overtones. The framing device, however, is Oppenheimer in his later years and being forced to account for his entire life in an inquisition at the height of the Red Scare. As he recounts his time meeting with other scientists, his efforts to seek unionisation on the campus of his college, and his acceptance of all walks of life and political affiliation, you get a sense of just how at odds Oppenheimer was with the world.

This comes into sharp focus when he's setting up Los Alamos, the colony of thinkers and scientists in the wilds of New Mexico, where the "gadget" was being built for use in World War II against Nazi Germany. Murphy's Oppenheimer switches from scientist to politician, navigating the pull of the American institutions who want the bomb for the awesome and terrifying power it holds, and his own fears of it. This is something that Christopher Nolan's script and direction capture in crystal clear precision - just how daunting and mind-warping the entire concept of an atom bomb truly was.

There are frequent moments in 'Oppenheimer' where the crushing weight of this realisation proves too much, and you almost think Cillian Murphy's head is going to explode from the pressure of it all - and ours along with it. It's unbearable at times, to say nothing of the fears that lay in things like atmospheric ignition and the proliferation of nuclear weapons as a result. Yet Nolan's direction and script hold fast to this, living in that discomfort and tension without letting it slip away into something comfortable. Perhaps the most horrifying moment comes not during the detonation of the bomb, but afterwards when Oppenheimer delivers a rousing speech to the scientists who worked on the "gadget" as they celebrate its success.

Structurally and in common with Nolan's works, 'Oppenheimer' flicks between timelines, but makes the transition between them relatively easy to follow - until it isn't, of course. The sense of scale that he often works with comes from the cast. Murphy, as mentioned, gives a fully realised portrayal of Oppenheimer - witty at times, wearied at others, but always with a captivating presence that ignites the passions of those around him. Downey Jr. is not to be ignored, and will likely join Murphy on the trail of awards at the end of the year. Sadly, both Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt are decidedly underwritten and are squandered entirely. Maybe that's the point, of course, that Oppenheimer the character ignored or sidelined them as much as the movie did.

In any event, 'Oppenheimer' is a towering triumph of a movie, and may very well rank as Nolan's best in years to come. Very few directors are able to fully capture and account for an entire person's life and achievements, and very few actors have the range and skill to carry it through. Yet, both Nolan and Murphy manage to set the movie in the same pantheon of iconic biopics. 'Gandhi' was one, 'Amadeus' was another. 'Malcolm X' and 'Lawrence of Arabia' both captured the glory and the fall and so too does 'Oppenheimer'.