REVIEW – ‘Oppenheimer’ will stay with you for an eternity

When a film’s marketing features a tagline as powerful as “The world forever changes,” you’ve got to have the goods to back up just why the focus of this piece of cinema is so monumentally historic. Then again, the release of a new film from auteur filmmaker Christopher Nolan is always fairly monumental in itself. For the last decade, Nolan has been intent on producing epics of sound and sight purposely designed for the largest cinemas possible. And now he’s tackling a moment in history that truly did change the world; the invention of the atomic bomb and the infamous man responsible for its creation.

Both an intensely intimate character study and a glorious theatrical experience, Oppenheimer is a staggering piece of filmmaking only someone like Nolan could bring to fruition. Led with quiet power by a career-best performance from Cillian Murphy and elevated by a sublime ensemble supporting cast, it’s a profoundly human portrait of a brilliant man and the crushing weight of moral reckoning. A beautifully crafted and palpably tense thriller centred on ambition, hubris, paranoia, and persecution, it’s an overwhelming piece of cinema and one of the year’s finest films.

In a tiny Washington D.C. boardroom in 1954 sits J. Robert Oppenheimer (Murphy, never better), the genius theoretical physicist responsible for the research and development of the world’s first nuclear. Once heralded a national hero for his role in effectively ending World War II, Oppenheimer is now before a board of influential men who will decide if his national security clearance should be revoked over rumours of his communist ties and disloyalty to the United States.

In a plush office outside the U.S. Senate in 1959 sits Lewis Strauss (a magnificent Robert Downey Jr.), the former chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and a key figure in the development of nuclear weapons. After being nominated by President Eisenhower to become the next U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Strauss is now before a congressional hearing to confirm his nomination, proving more heated and controversial than he naively imagined.

Over the course of three hours, Nolan will jump between these two proceedings to highlight how these men’s lives intersected and why both hearings will have unspeakable consequences on their image and reputation. As a much younger man, we meet Oppenheimer as a promising but troubled student who’s plagued by visions of flames, sparks, and atoms. After spending time in Europe developing his interest in “radical physics,” Oppenheimer returns to the U.S. to pass on his teachings as a professor at Berkley.

While Oppenheimer is beginning to implement his research into the newly-discovered concept of splitting atoms, Hitler invades Poland and the physicist is promptly recruited by General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to lead the Los Alamos Laboratory and its Manhattan Project, which will eventually lead to the creation of the world’s first atomic bomb. But when the bomb is used to annihilate tens of thousands of people in Japan, Oppenheimer becomes a vocal advocate against further nuclear development, placing a target squarely on his back as a dissenting citizen.

Whether you’re well versed in the life and times of Oppenheimer or this is your first introduction to the notorious figure of American history, this is an utterly enthralling tale where 180 minutes of time truly fly by without even noticing. At its core, Oppenheimer is a beautifully crafted and staggeringly human character piece in the same vein as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Oliver Stone’s JFK. By focusing so tightly and intensely on one particular character, Nolan digs deep into the psyche of his protagonist to offer something so much more than just a historical drama or a generic Wikipedia-style biopic.

Oppenheimer is a complicated and complex figure and Nolan deftly toes the line between deifying and indicting him. His screenplay is just as interested in celebrating his genius as it is in exploring his faults and vulnerabilities. He’s charismatic and charming, but also conceited and naive. There’s something so equally fascinating and frustrating about this man, making him the perfect subject matter for such a grand opus of a film.

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this tale could have fallen into the trap of being a bombastic war movie or an action blockbuster that fails to acknowledge the humanity of its subject. Nolan wisely refuses even to reimagine the horrific events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead, we see it through Oppenheimer’s terrifying visions of what he presumes occurred, juxtaposed with the cheering of crowds as he’s celebrated as an icon of American patriotism.

That’s not to suggest there aren’t epic theatrical elements at play here. The sequence involving the Trinity Test where Oppenheimer’s bomb is first trialled is one of the most stunningly staged sequences you’ll see on screen this year. Or any year, for that matter. Try not to hold your breath as the clock counts down and dozens of men bear witness to the glory and horror of what Oppenheimer has invented. Aided by razor-sharp editing by Jennifer Lame, a thunderous horn and string-heavy score from Ludwig Göransson, ingenious sound design (or, in some moments, lack thereof), and visual effects somehow completely devoid of CGI trickery, it’s a pulse-pounding moment bound for the annals of movie-making history.

At the centre of everything (don’t quote me on this, but I believe he’s in almost every single scene of this film) is Murphy with the role of a lifetime and perhaps his greatest performance to date. Murphy brings a raw, quiet power to every single frame as he expertly captures the intricacies, complexities, and contradictions of a man on the precipice of greatness and later torn apart by his actions. It’s a sublimely compelling turn where so much is conveyed on Oppenheimer’s face, often captured in tight close-ups by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema where you can genuinely feel the conflicting emotions pulsating in this man’s brain. You cannot take your eyes off Murphy and he surely has to be looking at his first (and overdue) Oscar nomination.

Downey Jr is equally as impressive in a role that breaks off the shackles of those superhero movies he’s been stuck in for the past decade. It’s best to leave the specifics of Strauss’ character arc for you to discover on your own, but Downey Jr is sensational as a man caught between awe and jealousy and fuelled by his own infallible hubris. Strauss is a cunning strategist whose manipulation of Oppenheimer is both mesmerising and horrifying. Nolan is blessed with an embarrassment of riches in an ensemble cast that includes Oscar winners Rami MalekCasey AffleckKenneth Branagh, and Gary Oldman in small but wildly memorable roles, particularly the latter as the no-nonsense, acerbic President Truman.

If there is one slight fault to highlight, it’s the continued struggle of Nolan to write fully-dimensional female characters. Oppenheimer was reportedly a wild womaniser; something Nolan doesn’t shy away from. His dismissal and almost ignorance of his frustratingly faithful wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt) is hard to watch, but it’s even harder to watch someone as talented as Blunt be saddled with a role that fails her so repeatedly. She’s blessed with a rousing moment late in the film, but there’s a noticeable lack of depth to a woman who clearly had her reasons for remaining by her husband’s side. It’s even more egregious to hire someone as brilliant as Florence Pugh in the role of Oppenheimer’s mentally ill mistress Jean Tatlock. Pugh naturally elevates her brief scenes, but it’s a thankless role beneath her skills.

It’s a minor quibble in a film that’s a near masterpiece of cinema. This is Nolan at his best and most effective. He innately understands the immense power of storytelling and this is a story that demanded to be told in such a soaring way. The tension he’s able to build. The emotions he’s able to capture. The performances he manages to elicit. The imagery he’s able to craft. The non-linear structure he’s able to build. Everything here works so stunningly well. Haunting, captivating, and unforgettable, Oppenheimer is a film that will stay with you for an eternity.

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh
Director: Christopher Nolan
Producers: Emma Thomas, Charles Roven, Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan
Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema
Production Design: Ruth De Jong
Costume Design: Ellen Mirojnick
Editor: Jennifer Lame
Music: Ludwig Göransson
Running Time: 180 minutes
Release Date: 20th July 2023 (Australia)

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