Oppenheimer review: a minor miracle of a movie

Oppenheimer review
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Christopher Nolan and Cillian Murphy are at their most powerfully restrained in the spellbinding drama, Oppenheimer. Our review.

There are various kinds of power humming through director Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Oppenheimer. There’s the power of the atomic bomb, of course – the invention of which Nolan’s historical drama explores in intricate detail. There’s political power – the kind that can turn scientists into celebrities, but also crush anyone foolish enough to stray too far off script.


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Then there’s the Hollywood power of Nolan himself – a filmmaker whose reputation is such that he can not only get a dialogue-heavy, three-hour drama about experimental bomb projects greenlit, but can attract so many well-known actors that it’s common to see Dane DeHaan hold Matt Damon’s coat for him in one scene, while Rami Malek gets a few brief (albeit pivotal) lines of dialogue in another.

In his drama about theoretical physicist J Robert Oppenheimer – based on the book American Prometheus – Nolan eschews some of the flashier elements of his earlier filmmaking style. Even compared to Nolan’s wartime epic, Dunkirk, Oppenheimer is strikingly austere; with its deliberate pace and sombre tone, it has as much in common with Munich-era Steven Spielberg or JFK-era Oliver Stone as Nolan’s earlier body of work.

Given that much has been made of the film’s use of IMAX cameras, it’s also striking how much of Oppenheimer is simply about people in small rooms, talking in hushed tones about world-defining events. (It’s a wonder, in fact, how cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema managed to squeeze the famously bulky IMAX camera into such claustrophobic spaces.)

Perhaps Nolan’s restraint springs from his awareness that so much of Oppenheimer is about its subject’s haunted, gaunt face. As played with an intense stillness by Cillian Murphy, the film’s JR Oppenheimer seems disturbed and horrified by the weapon he’ll help create even before it’s even built. He’s motivated by a desire to stop the Nazis (Oppenheimer is himself Jewish, albeit not a practising one), and also carries the misguided belief that creating a weapon of such shocking magnitude will lead to a new era of global peace.

In this respect, Oppenheimer is a classic Nolan hero – like Memento’s Leonard Shelby, Inception’s Cobb or even Bruce Wayne, Murphy’s protagonist is charismatic, driven, yet also melancholy and guilt-ridden.

The atom bomb is but one strand in Oppenheimer’s drama, and some may be a little surprised that its subject’s high-stakes project in the Los Alamos desert doesn’t have more focus. Instead, the film’s a broader portrait of its central character, the people he knew, and the personal flaws that will one day threaten to ruin him. Much time is spent exploring Oppenheimer’s pioneering work as a theoretical physicist; how he acknowledged his lack of brilliance in mathematics, but was encouraging and inspiring to students and colleagues who were. Had he not been asked to join the Manhattan Project, who knows which way history might have gone?

Nolan freely intercuts between time periods, with some picked out in stark Memento-like monochrome. It’s a storytelling device Nolan has used repeatedly in his earlier films, of course, but here it not only generates tension, but also a poignant sense of inevitability.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of 20th century history will know at least something about what unfolded in 1945, and Nolan’s version of history plays out as though everyone involved are pawns of fate, moved to their positions by an unseen hand. Fears that the Nazis would build an atomic bomb motivated the US government to throw $2 billion and countless hours researching into developing their own weapon; then fears that Russia could build a more powerful hydrogen bomb triggered a cycle of nuclear escalation that would last for decades to come.

The cast is, predictably, roundly excellent. Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt play the two loves of Oppenheimer’s life, if you can necessarily call them that; both are academics and fiercely intelligent in their own ways, but both have their own vulnerabilities that Nolan gradually, coolly lays bare. Then there’s Matt Damon as the blustering, bull-necked Leslie Groves, the Lieutenant Colonel who hires Oppenheimer to lead the Manhattan project despite – or perhaps because of – his leftist sympathies.

An almost unrecognisably wizened Robert Downey Jr as Lewis Strauss, the Princeton trustee and (later) US Atomic Energy Commission chairman whose relationship with Oppenheimer soon proves to be pivotal. Perhaps most memorable among the ensemble is Tom Conti as an elder Albert Einstein; his brief scenes with Murphy’s Oppenheimer have, curiously, a warmth and chemistry that tend to be lacking in its more romantic moments.

Through it all, Nolan captures Oppenheimer’s growing apprehension, then outright horror at the forces he’s unleashed. The film’s most affecting moments aren’t necessarily the most obvious; a sequence where Oppenheimer gives a speech to an assembled group of scientists, only for his words to stick in his throat as his mind drifts to the effects of the bomb, are some of the most imaginative, technically ingenious and disturbing in the film. It’s in these brief flights of imagination that Nolan’s creative ingenuity and the work of composer Ludwig Göransson and sound designer Randy Torres combine to make something darkly magical. The sound of stomping feet bleed from one scene into the next, turning into a tribal thrum; the rattling chains of a departing convoy continue their jangling refrain as the camera cuts away, loitering ominously in the background, as though Oppenheimer himself can’t quite get the sounds out of his head.

In a fractious movie-making environment where even superhero flicks are struggling to attract people to cinemas, seeing a restrained historical drama made on this scale feels like a welcome anomaly. Beyond the minor miracle of Oppenheimer’s existence, though, there’s the surprising timeliness of its themes. From our position here in 2023, humanity appears to be at its own crossroads not unlike the one it faced as the Atomic Age was born. Ahead of us lie the frightening prospects of a society forever changed by artificial intelligence or doomed by environmental collapse.

Nolan’s film is a reminder that the scientific and political minds that have the power to sculpt our history – and can decide the fate of millions – are as frail, paranoid, flawed, and prone to pettiness and shallow self-interest as the rest of us. More than the terrifying power of the atom bomb itself, that is perhaps Oppenheimer’s scariest sentiment of all.


Oppenheimer is out in UK cinemas on 21 July.

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