Biography Drama

Review: ‘Oppenheimer’ is a Master Class in Filmmaking and a Cautionary Tale About the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Anthropogenic Destruction

July 21, 2023Ben MK

One of the most admired and talented filmmakers of his generation, Christopher Nolan has given moviegoers some of the most celebrated films in recent memory and worked with some of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood, transporting audiences from the crime-ridden streets of Gotham City to the war-torn beaches of Normandy, and even the battlefield of the future. Whether it's the sleight-of-hand suspense of The Prestige, the sci-fi drama of Interstellar, or the time-bending thrills of Tenet, Nolan's repertoire is virtually flawless. And with Oppenheimer, the 52-year-old writer-director maintains that record, as he takes viewers on a decades-spanning journey about the father of the atomic bomb.

The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the film follows history's most famous and controversial physicist, from his brief stint as a student at Cambridge in 1924 to the infamous 1954 security hearing by the United States Atomic Energy Commission that investigated the allegations of him being a Communist and a Soviet spy. Alternating between scenes shot in stark black and white and scenes shot in color, Nolan jumps back and forth in time to take an intimate look into Oppenheimer's life, his ill-fated love affair with psychiatrist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), and his marriage to wife Kitty (Emily Blunt). For the most part, however, the movie focuses on Oppenheimer's academic rise and his eventual recruitment by Lieutenant General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), the US Army Corps officer who hired Oppenheimer and brought him onboard to oversee the Manhattan Project.

Appointed as the director of the project's Los Alamos laboratory in 1943, the then-39-year-old Oppenheimer was charged with building the world's first atomic bomb, a mammoth and extremely top-secret undertaking that involved some of the most brilliant minds in the scientific community, taking some 2 years to complete and costing approximately $2 billion dollars. Yet, despite the project's resounding success, which culminated in July of 1945 with the nuclear detonation codenamed the Trinity Test, Oppenheimer's life in the years following would push both he and his family to the brink. Guilt-ridden by his role in the hundreds of thousands of deaths that resulted when the US dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer struggled to come to terms with the horror he helped unleash. And even though he devoted himself to lobbying for greater control of nuclear weapons, he could never live down the rumors of his ties to Communism and his disloyalty to America.

Needless to say, the subject matter is anything but light, nor is it the type that typically makes for thrilling entertainment. Nonetheless, thanks to his masterful command of the cinematic language, Nolan is able to make the result just as engaging as watching Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb plan a heist into the human psyche, or witnessing Christian Bale's Dark Knight battle Heath Ledger's Joker. From Robert Downey Jr.'s turn as Oppenheimer's power-hungry, secret nemesis, Lewis Strauss, to the way director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema perfectly composes each frame, every scene in Oppenheimer is a master class in filmmaking. As for the movie's crowning achievement, though, there's no doubt that it's Murphy's performance as the tortured, titular scientist himself.

As one of history's most divisive figures, Murphy completely disappears into the role of a man who begins with altruistic intentions but who eventually comes to be dogged by the terrifying reality of his own achievements. And while the rest of the cast is unquestionably stellar, it's impossible not to be mesmerized by Murphy's haunting portrayal. It's a part that will certainly garner the 47-year-old actor Oscar recognition come awards season. But in the meantime, audiences will have a hard time walking out of Oppenheimer and not thinking about the film's cautionary message about humanity and our own twisted ambitions for self-destruction.

Oppenheimer releases July 21st, 2023 from Universal Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of R for some sexuality, nudity and language. Its runtime is 3 hrs. 1 min.

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