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‘Oppenheimer’ – Review

‘Oppenheimer’ – Review


For twenty-five years, Christopher Nolan has worked to extend the reach and possibility of the cinematic arts. With every new work, he has made gigantic strides in displaying why narrative and story matter and his work in Oppenheimer is an utter masterpiece.

The film follows the life of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory during the Manhattan Project in World War II, and his contributions that led to the creation of the atomic bomb.

Looking to the past and adapting Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus, filmmaker Christopher Nolan tells the doomed and tragic story of American theoretical physicist and father of the ‘atomic bomb’, J. Robert Oppenheimer. And the result is a pulse-pounding and terrifying film of what the fullest pursuit of genius can do to the human spirit. Nolan’s narrative in Oppenheimer is a cautionary parable for the modern age of innovation and what the blind pursuit of knowledge can lead to. Drawing on the Greek myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, and who, for gifting it to mankind, was chained to a rock by his angry creator and who was forced to endure intolerable torment for all of eternity, Nolan takes his audiences on an emotional and shocking journey to the creation of the Atomic Bomb. And it is an awe-inspiring work.

Christopher Nolan’s stance in the realisation of Oppenheimer is that of conductor of the grandest visual orchestra arranged. Light, colour, sound and performance all merge together in the telling of the grand American tale, with Oppenheimer being a perfect symphony of the cinematic arts. Nolan stands as a painter with this portrait of the most defining moment of the 20th century, and not a brush stroke is missed. Layered emotions and the complex juxtaposition of the pursuit of glory mirrored with the realisation of the tragedy of success are brought together in the film. He brings a highly focused attention to detail to this titan of a narrative, and audiences will find themselves pulled deeper and deeper into its continually evolving story. Like the realm of quantum physics that he seeks to pull his audience into, Oppenheimer is a continually evolving production, and it is not until the final scene that its full meaning can be felt.

As a guardian of the cinema experience, Nolan makes Oppenheimer a feast for the eyes, and it is a glory to watch in the IMAX format. Together with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, production designer Ruth De Jong, art director Samantha Englender, and costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, Nolan creates a broad and sweeping canvas that captures the change of humanity’s entire direction in the mid-1940s with the race to the creation of the bomb. The scope of IMAX captures an almost Norman Rockwell influence on the lighting, costuming, and design of Oppenheimer’s world and its Los Alomas setting. The familiar and classic Americana landscape acts as an inviting portal for audiences to enter into, but it also hides the world-changing discoveries that are at work. The use of both colour and black and white in the storytelling mechanism acts as a way to define the film’s two unique narrative perspectives, and audiences will not be able to look away from what they witness.

At the centre of Oppenheimer and with the eyes of the audience fully focused on him is Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer. And let me say that Murphy’s performance is excellent. Through appearance, stance and behaviour, Murphy transforms himself into Oppenheimer, the man who would move the world, and he’s never been given greater responsibility for a character. In his portrayal of ‘the father of the Atomic Bomb’, Murphy moves between the polarities that existed in Oppenheimer’s life. He’s a man whose enchanted by the natural world and who seeks an understanding of it to bask in its beauty and triumph but who is also ensnared by the jealousies, failings and fears that afflict all men. J. Robert Oppenheimer was complex, challenged and evolving, and so too is Murphy’s presentation of the man.

Standing in Murphy’s shadow in Oppenheimer is celebrated actress Emily Blunt as she carries a grand weight as the central character’s traumatised and problem-stricken wife, Kitty. Both a drunk and uncaring wife and mother, Kitty is an incredibly difficult woman who straddles a line between her admiration and bitter spite of her husband. She’s also a woman whose unafraid of an argument, and she’s ready to get in the faces of the men she despises. While you could label Blunt’s character as unsympathetic, we bear witness to her own emotions and the humiliation that she suffers through with her husband’s ongoing affair with the pretty and spritely Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), his communist fling. Nolan revs up the disgust and trauma as she confronts her husband’s blatant and open infidelities. Blunt is at the top of her game in Oppenheimer, and she’s never given a better performance.

Via Christopher Nolan’s presence Matt Damon finds a new direction for his presentation as the classic American character. Cast as Brigadier General Leslie Groves, a man who led the creation of the Manhatten Project and America’s response to the race for the bomb, Damon leans into Groves’s documented persona as ‘a doer, a driver and a stickler for duty’. As Groves, Damon is a complete bulldog. Argumentative, relentless and determined to get his own way, he repeatedly hammers the threat that failure is not an option. Like many of the other characters present in this story, Damon’s Groves shares a complex and constantly progressive relationship with Murphy’s Oppenheimer, and this leads to an interesting relationship on screen.

Finally, Robert Downey Jr. steps into the polished visage of Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and he’s the narrative’s most complicated character. Strauss appears in the narrative as the ultimate politician, thanks to Downey Jr.’s portrayal of him. Best described as a two-faced, bureaucratic prick, he’s willing to go to any length to paint himself in a positive light, and as Nolan’s film develops, his festering contempt, heightened distrust and loathsome disdain for Oppenheimer unfolds. Robert Downey Jr. as Strauss is pure unchecked ego, and he has a considerable appearance in the film’s third act, and like many of the actors in the piece, Downey Jr. elevates to a whole other level in Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer is a pure operatic experience thanks to the tremendous scale given to it by the scope of the IMAX format. Its defining centre piece relates to the testing of The Trinity Test, the first time the world ever saw witness to an atomic device, when Oppenheimer literally captured the power of the sun on Earth. And in IMAX, it’s a thunderous moment. Imagery and sound capture its orange and yellow mushroom cloud and both its beauty and horror in a single moment. The film’s presentation of The Trinity Test is matched to Nolan’s exploration of the world of quantum physics. The director visualizes this through pictures of vivid colours and fractured light, and there’s a certain psychedelic rock and roll vibe that is present in the picture’s exploration of theoretical physics.

Thematically Christopher Nolan takes his audience on a considerable journey with this narrative, and there’s an immense danger and darkness that exists at the heart of Oppenheimer. Nolan’s vivid exploration of the creation of the atomic bomb is then juxtaposed with the harrowing and haunting realisation of Oppenheimer’s own actions and the terrifying realisation of the destruction he has unleashed upon the world. Oppenheimer is existentially sobering in its final delivery, and the audiences will feel their minds throb with its questions and messaging. By its final scene, I was completely spent with emotion, and its hard-hitting final statement continued to reverberate throughout my mind for many days to come. I had never before witnessed a more intellectual, harrowing and important cinema experience in my whole life.

Oppenheimer is a film of cause and effect, action and consequence, and how innovation can lead to both discovery and destruction in the same moment. The film’s final statement is a definitive statement on human choice, action and free will, and this is the ultimate cautionary tale for our modern age. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a cinematic masterpiece in every sense of the word and is likely to be one of the most important narrative events of the 21st century. And humanity should head its message.

Image: Universal Pictures