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'Oppenheimer' review: Christopher Nolan's riveting drama breaks through the stratosphere

Courtesy of Universal


Not many filmmakers in the streaming era are given latitude from traditional studios to make original movies, let alone a $100 million budgeted adult drama, released in the middle of the busy summer movie going season, about a controversial quantum physicist with no CGI, capes, major spectacle, or built in brand awareness. Then again, not many filmmakers are Christopher Nolan, one of the few remaining directors who makes his films for the biggest screens imaginable with an emphasis on total immersion and ear shattering sound design. So, it’s no surprise “Oppenheimer,” a three-hour biopic about the “father of the atomic bomb” J. Robert Oppenheimer, where most of the movie is people talking in rooms (most of the time in black and white) about splitting atoms and the moral dilemmas of creating a world killer, is one of the most cinematic achievements of the year. Marvel could never.

Based on the 2005 biography “American Prometheus,” Nolan’s star-studded affair chronicles Oppenheimer, played here with a fierce unwavering tenacity by Cillian Murphy in a career best performance, and his development of the first nuclear weapon as part of the Manhattan Project, an earth-shattering event that ushered in the Atomic Age. The movie, presented in a swift three act structure that mirrors the director’s own “Memento,” grapples with the horrors, innovation, and intensity of the project where the physicists in charge never could say with 100% certainty the bomb’s aftershocks wouldn’t destroy the atmosphere. It makes for a dramatic, race-against-the-clock thriller where Nolan relies heavily on real locations and zero CGI to get his point across. He puts the audience in the room during the infamous “Trinity Test,” the assessment that provided proof of concept, as the seconds tick away and even though we know the outcome, we’re still hanging on every moment.

It's a dense movie with “Tenet” collaborator Ludwig Göransson’s magnetic score and Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography (a stunner in 70mm) elevating the performances and narrative. Speaking of performances, there’s plenty to go around. Probably too many to name. It’s a who’s who of families faces, some, like Tony Goldwyn, Casey Affleck, Gary Oldman, and Rami Malek, have a sliver of screen-time. Elsewhere, at any given moment Kenneth Branagh, David Krumholtz, Matthew Modine, Jack Quaid, Josh Peck (!), and even, checks notes, Dane DeHaan pop up sporadically throughout the movie playing real generals and scientists. Occasionally, it can give a case of whiplash trying to keep up. Was that Alden Ehrenreich, and Olivia Thirbly that just passed through? It sure was! Even 90s teen heartthrob Josh Hartnett, who is having a bit of a resurgence, is given a sizable role-playing Oppenheimer confidant Ernest Lawrence. Hell, Benny Safdie is a riot playing Hungarian physicist Edward Teller.

Though each of those actors are given their moment to shine, you also got Matt Damon chewing up the role of Leslie Richard Groves Jr, the United States Army Corps general who took a flier on Oppenheimer and his merry band of whiz-kids, often clashing with the doctor on areas of national security. But the real revelation, aside from Murphy, belongs to Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, the U.S Atomic Energy Commission chair who’s battle with Oppenheimer over his security clearance in closed door meetings ended up becoming a major part of his political legacy. In these moments, especially the interrogations, Nolan tinkers with the subjective and objective point of views by switching back and forth between color and black-and-white, the latter of which had never been created for an IMAX film camera. In Nolan we trust.

With the men soaking up the airwaves, it leaves the actresses little wiggle room to stand out, which is often a major criticism of Nolan’s films. Florence Pugh’s Jean Tatlock has maybe ten minutes of airtime? The script gives minimal levity to her frail mental state and relationship with Oppenheimer, and it can seem, at times, Pugh is stuck in her own universe. Emily Blunt is given a tad more leash playing Katherine “Kitty” Oppenheimer, but again the script only gets at the surface of her struggles. The movie briefly touches on her issues regarding alcoholism and raising two children and never does it poke at their marital strife. These minor subplots, meant to show Oppenheimer could be a womanizer when he wanted to be, add little to the overall focus of the movie. They’re disconnected from the real crux of what the film is chasing.

Still, “Oppenheimer” is a riveting character study that wraps its head around one of the country’s greatest minds. Here’s someone who has been mischaracterized and misunderstood for generations and Nolan is attempting to set the record straight while also pointing the camera back at us and asking: How did we get here? It hits like a sack of bricks and lingers with you long after the credits roll. It also, ironically, can be seen as representative of the era we’re currently living in. With the development of advanced weaponry, wars across the globe, and wildfires invading our air quality, a ripple effect has been initiated that, akin to what Oppenheimer and his team feared when giving the United States unchecked power to decimate entire populations, is past the point of no return. History has been repeating itself for decades, now we must live with the consequences.

Grade: B+

OPPENHEIMER opens in theaters everywhere Friday, July 21st. 


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