The Plot: While WWII rages on in Europe, the American Government becomes aware that the Nazis have split the atom and are developing an atomic bomb. They draft in brilliant theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) to take charge of the Manhattan Project under the direction of Lieutenant General Groves (Matt Damon). In order to control the situation and direct the course of the war, America must develop the atomic bomb first and also be the first to use it to demonstrate its destructive power. However, as time passes and the project nears completion, Oppenheimer comes up against multiple opposing forces. These include accusations of Communist affiliations, the forthright Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) as well as his own troubled conscience…
The Verdict: Despite working in the film industry for a quarter of a century now and establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with, the little golden guy has eluded Christopher Nolan. He’s in good company though – his inspiration Stanley Kubrick never won a best director Oscar either. That may well change for Nolan with his latest film Oppenheimer, which could very well be described as his magnum opus. That’s not mere hyperbole. Oppenheimer does very much come across as a summation of Nolan’s career to date. It’s intensely focused in its steely direction, extremely well-made and so involving and immersive that no 3D is required. Oppenheimer is Nolan combining the best of his intelligent blockbuster approach with a historical background that resonates today, with the threat of a new cold war just about being contained on the very edge of Europe.
There’s a line early on in the film in which a character describes Oppenheimer as a man who looks beyond this world. It’s a perceptive starting point for Nolan to dissect this most elusive, controversial and contradictory of historical figures. His script with Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin is the very antithesis of a summer blockbuster. It’s built from the ground up as a character-driven piece that is heavy on richly-evocative dialogue and low on visual effects. With Nolan’s commitment to doing things practically, the centrepiece scene involving the Trinity Test in the New Mexico desert was done practically without visual effects. If there’s anything explosive here, it’s much more to do with the performances and how history judges a man like Oppenheimer. He was instrumental in developing the atomic bomb that ultimately wiped out two Japanese cities and brought the country to its knees… but then fought to control how this power was used by the US Government.
Nolan has structured the film like a ticking time bomb itself, the urge to get there ahead of the Nazis more important than considering the impact and usage of such weapons of mass destruction. The old political theory that you escalate a situation in order to de-escalate doesn’t quite wash here, as over the course of three hours Nolan charts the psychological impact of life-changing decisions on Oppenheimer and his team of scientists squirrelled away in the desert and later in Capitol Hill committees. Not exactly pawns of the military then but these decisions are not made by scientists, as Nolan makes clear when Oppenheimer is confronted by President Truman. The film goes beyond a character study to dig deeper into what made Oppenheimer tick at a subatomic level. Asked about where he falls on judging Oppenheimer, Nolan has said that he sees it more as a film about understanding him – that’s food for thought as the credits roll on what could very well be shell-shocked audiences.
Beyond the sterling direction and commitment to practical filmmaking, it’s also an acting masterclass from Cillian Murphy in the title role. Hand-picked by Nolan after nearly two decades working as a supporting player in his films, Nolan’s instincts were spot-on. The Cork actor brings an intense, gaunt and consistently haunted look to his performance, keeping Oppenheimer relatably human in his interactions with his wives and colleagues but also just out of reach as the man who changed the world and risked even destroying it by igniting the atmosphere. It’s a career-best performance from Murphy, showing his impressive range as an actor who is often under-the-radar and taken for granted by the industry. Given that the script was written in a first-person perspective, the rest of the cast is very much an ensemble effort but Robert Downey Jr. and Emily Blunt stand out as Oppenheimer’s tormentor and long-term supporter respectively.
Oppenheimer is a stunning piece of filmmaking, even by Nolan’s usually high standards. It’s a meaty and thought-provoking character study, so unlike anything else populating multiplexes at the moment. It requires concentration and commitment, but the cinematic rewards gradually unfold like the atomic bomb being disassembled to get to the core of the matter. On that front, it not only succeeds but exceeds those high expectations to become the explosive masterpiece of the year. Unmissable.
Rating: 5 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Oppenheimer (UK / USA / 15A / 180 mins)
In short: Explosive masterpiece
Directed by Christopher Nolan.
Starring Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Kenneth Branagh, Florence Pugh, Jason Clarke.