Review: Oppenheimer is undoubtedly the best movie of 2023 so far. Christopher Nolan puts any doubt to rest that he wouldn’t be capable of capturing a story of this magnitude. Cillian Murphy gives an iconic performance that intensifies each moment rolling along this breakneck biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
The latest blockbuster movie directed and written by Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer portrays the years that lead up to J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) developing the atomic bomb during the final stages of World War II. Based on the biography American Prometheus, Oppenheimer takes a decade-spanning look at the man capable of creating weapons of mass destruction, and the emotional weight that comes with such power.
Oppenheimer wrecks the senses. Christopher Nolan has never crafted a movie with such intent and unrelenting ambition like this, one that simultaneously blends visual and sonic elements so precisely that it becomes the sole reason to seek it out. Even if the script and performances were hypothetically bad (which they certainly are not), Oppenheimer is worth seeing solely because of the operatic nature of it, because I’m not sure I’ve seen someone or something operate at such a daring, unapologetic level.
And yet it always seemed right that Christopher Nolan would seek out the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer to adapt, largely in part because Nolan seems fascinated with both WWII history and the impending doom that man places upon himself. We create our own enemies, from the psychological games two magicians play in The Prestige to the manmade apocalypse in Interstellar – at some point, we will crater to the devices we’ve bult for ourselves, atomic or not.
Nolan seems to think it could just be the atomic bomb, articulated through multiple discussions that Oppenheimer has with none other than Albert Einstein. The two contemplate whether they’ve caused a chain reaction of events that could only end in self-annihilation. By the time the credits role and Cillian Murphy’s bright blue, dead eyes bleed off the screen, he’s convinced you that’s just the case.
Or maybe it’ll end because of male ego, which the third act attempts to navigate to rather murky results (maybe my lone true critique of the film, leave it to Nolan to end a three hour biopic with two inter-stitched depositions staggeringly tough to follow). We all love Aaron Sorkin, but only Christopher Nolan would attempt to mirror the same structural and thematic templates of The Social Network on such a cosmic and dire level. The movie shrinks into a chamber piece, one that I’m not sure fully works – but I’m not sure fully doesn’t work.
And yet despite my inability to fully comprehend every living breath of Oppenheimer upon first viewing, I couldn’t help but be taken aback by a unilateral sense that Nolan has his finger on the pulse of every frame of this 70mm IMAX behemoth. The direction is impeccable, borrowing from the best impulses of Terrence Malick, David Fincher, and Andrei Tarkovsky to craft a film that confronts you with unanswerable moral questions. It’s certainly not a perfectly structured movie, but it shines in those blemishes as it does so much in an incredibly long runtime.
Oppenheimer operates on two different fronts and in many different timelines, a common theme for Nolan films that I occasionally struggle to align with. The first seems obvious: J. Robert Oppenheimer is tasked with developing a weapon capable of destruction beyond human interpretation. Oppenheimer is just a theorist before this, dedicating his time to what could be down the horizon rather than what he can accomplish in the present.
He’s given the flexibility of choosing a location and his team, barring any significant anxieties stemming from either. This leads into the second narrative strain of Oppenheimer, which portrays the heightened fear that American leaders had of communism within their own ranks during the cold war. This section of the movie concerns the political and personal bout between Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), a politician on the verge of being appointed to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidential cabinet.
Bureaucracy’s impending power looms heavily on these sequences as Strauss uses Oppenheimer as a scapegoat for many of the troubles that the United States Government brought upon the world with the creation of the atomic weaponry. Robert Downey Jr. is the perfect actor to portray Strauss for many reasons. He instills the same paranoid, sporadic delivery into his character that he did in Zodiac, a movie that feels like an increasingly relevant period piece given the levels of nihilism coursing through this movie’s veins.
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And then he’s playing the same corporatized poster child that he did as Tony Stark, pandering to the sides that may just propel his career to the next level and inevitably fill his wallet and his ego. Downey Jr. shreds in this role, and it’s inevitable that he’ll be nominated for awards for his performance here – even if he takes the forefront in the aforementioned third leg of this blisteringly complex and dynamic film.
There will be plenty of writing for months (and years) about Cillian Murphy’s performance as J. Robert Oppenheimer – his ability to simultaneously convey every emotion bouncing around in his dense brain while standing utterly expressionless, acting as a portal into the world of Los Alamos as the Manhattan Project is underway. Murphy’s always been an intriguing actor for me (he plays my favorite Batman villain to every right note), but I’m not sure that I thought he had this in him. Lock him up for the Oscar because there hasn’t been a fully realized male performance like this all decade.
I’m writing this off the fumes of seeing Oppenheimer for the first time, and frankly there’s so much more to peel back from the movie that I’m not sure I’ll even get to by the fifth or sixth watch. It’s incredibly rewatchable because of the combination of Jennifer Lame’s editing, Ludwig Goransson’s score, Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography, and Christopher Nolan’s direction. Nolan puts together the A-team in Oppenheimer, one we won’t see topped in 2023. It’s a theater experience unlike any other, where you can feel the walls slowly closing in for the one inevitable Trinity test that blows the audience away.
Easily one of my favorite Christopher Nolan joints. I’ve often felt that he struggles to combine humanity on a cosmic and interdimensional level, but he nails it here. Oppenheimer is incredibly dense as it navigates the possibilities of impending doom because of your own creations. It’s not a perfectly structured script, but there’s so much to admire in terms of craft and performances that I can forgive shortcomings from other aspects. An achievement to say the least.
Where to watch Oppenheimer: In theaters
Oppenheimer Film Cast and Credits
Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer
Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer
Matt Damon as Leslie Groves Jr.
Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss
Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock
Benny Safdie as Edward Teller
Michael Angarano as Robert Serber
Josh Hartnett as Ernest Lawrence
Rami Malek as David Hill
Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr
Alden Ehrenreich as Senate Aide
Casey Affleck as Boris Pash
Gary Oldman as Harry S. Truman
Jack Quaid as Richard Feynman
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema
Editor: Jennifer Lame
Composer: Ludwig Göransson
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Oppenheimer movie on IMDb