Christopher Nolan Goes Nuclear With ‘Oppenheimer’

Nolan's explosive exploration into the Father of the Atomic Bomb is the finest work of his career.

by Sean Coates

If Tom Cruise is the last true bankable movie star, then Christopher Nolan is one of just a handful of truly bankable auteur blockbuster directors we have left. Someone who is not a job-for-hire director the studio sees as a pushover and that can be kept on a short leash, but rather dictates the entire creative and technical process of a film himself and has enough prestige and clout to have the studio under his thumb but without any sort of pompous or smug ego attached. Nolan’s films transcend genre into one in and of itself; they’re intelligent, thought-provoking, and directed with near-surgical precision.

And just like Tom Cruise, Nolan is continually leading the crusade for analog supremacy in the age of visual effects with gargantuan spectacle through practical effects and large cinema formats such as IMAX. With his latest film Oppenheimer, a gripping three-hour epic about the self-proclaimed “Death, The Destroyer of Worlds,” Nolan’s disdain for digital photography saw him go as far as working with Kodak to invent a new black and white IMAX film stock specifically for the film. If that’s not dedication to the tactility of the medium and giving it a future, then nothing is.

Nolan has experimented with this visual storytelling motif before: exploring the nature of objectivity and subjectivity, truth, and myth through color and black and white respectively (or as this film playfully dubs it, Fission and Fusion). Not only was it fascinating to see him pull this out of his directorial kitbag and dust it off for the first time since Memento back in 2000, but also how he’s implemented it on a much larger scale over twenty years later in Oppenheimer is mind-blowing. Pulling mainly from Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus, Nolan invokes the spirit of that title by painting J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist, infamous for developing the first nuclear weapons as part of the Manhattan Project and often credited as the “father of the atomic bomb” with objective, undeniable truth, but simultaneously mythologizes Oppenheimer as a Frankenstein-esque tragic figure.

From the scrappy science student horrible in the lab but excellent with theory, to the man whose repressed Jewish identity and simmering anger towards the genocide of his people motivated him to create a weapon against the Nazis (at one point even saying Anti-Semitism is their greatest hope because Hitler had dubbed quantum physics as “Jew Science”). The dichotomy of Oppenheimer’s creation making him an American hero for ending the war but plaguing him with an inescapable existential dread, haunted by the power of his own creation and the literal seismic, earth-shattering devastation it’s caused and the subsequent celebration and persecution in equal measure he’d receive from his country in the aftermath. Structured in a typical Nolan non-linear style (edited to perfection by Jennifer Lame), with a framing device of Oppenheimer’s Atomic Energy Commission security hearings and a senate hearing into outgoing AEC chair Lewis Strauss (welcome back to real movies, Robert Downey Jr.), Oppenheimer chronicles these exploits to a level of detail and dramatic heft as only Nolan could and the result is a complex and harrowing tale of moral ambiguity.

The night skies are always dark whenever Nolan makes a film as he has a laundry list of stars at his disposal for Oppenheimer (many of whom reportedly took massive pay cuts just to work with Nolan) which is a rare combination of both quality and quantity. Cillian Murphy is exceptional as Oppenheimer in a career-defining performance. He’s always been a fantastic physical performer that can communicate so much without words, but Oppenheimer takes that to a whole new level. He gets his trademark Nolan moments of philosophical speechifying, but the most impactful moments of his performance are when the onus is put on his face. The extreme close-ups with his face filling the entire 1570 IMAX frame, he exerts a whole spectrum of emotion with a single visage, his icy, steel blue eyes piercing directly into your soul.

Murphy’s shine is so much brighter surrounded by a ridiculous cast that brings new meaning to the phrase “no small parts.” Downey Jr. will make you even angrier at Marvel for robbing us of fifteen years of stunning, layered performances like what he delivers here as Strauss. Matt Damon nails the stern but sympathetic engineer-turned-General Leslie Groves. Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock is emblematic of Nolan’s ongoing weakness with writing women, but Pugh performs well in her limited screen time. A very sweaty Benny Safdie as Edward Teller struggles a bit with his Hungarian accent, but also makes his mark on the film, bringing some slight levity, whether intentional or not. The rest of this loaded cast includes the likes of /deep breath  Kenneth Branaugh, Rami Malek, David Krumholtz, Matthew Modine, David Dastmalchian, Josh Hartnett (remember him?), Alden Ehrenreich, Olivia Thirlby, Tony Goldwyn, Jason Clarke, Dane DeHaan (remember him??), Alex Wolff, Jack Quaid, Josh Peck, James D’Arcy, and even Rodrick Heffley himself, Devon Bostick, just to name a few.

But as the old saying goes: behind every great man is an even greater woman, and Emily Blunt’s portrayal of Robert Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty is an incredibly disarming one. As she’s mostly relegated to the sidelines for the first two hours, her performance slowly creeps up on you until her character gains real agency in the fallout of Robert’s achievement, where he’s caught in a cycle of vicious, unfairly weighted bureaucracy with the AEC security hearings. Blunt swoops in and completely owns the film in its third and final hour and is the performance that will linger in your mind the longest.

Christopher Nolan is an extraordinary filmmaker and one of the very best working within the studio system. He’s made many remarkable motion pictures, but Oppenheimer, without a shadow of a doubt, is his masterpiece. It is a captivating examination of the human condition through the lens of a complex and complicated historical figure whose story evokes alarmingly prescient feelings of nuclear anxieties and impending doom surrounding the current war in Ukraine. Oppenheimer feels like Christopher Nolan’s Mount Everest and he has truly reached the summit and firmly planted that flag with pride.

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EclecticMusicLover July 19, 2023 - 6:14 pm

Great review! I’m looking forward to seeing this film.

Nick Kush July 19, 2023 - 12:12 pm

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