Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Oppenheimer (2023) dir. Christopher Nolan

Nolan am become death.


As the seething crimson flames unfurl across the titanic cinema screen, we are ushered into a nightmare—a harrowing and breathtaking biographical thriller about one the greatest and most dangerous minds in American history.

Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated Oppenheimer unveils the complicated, tragic life and work of theoretical physicist Julius Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb and director of the Manhattan Project. Cillian Murphy—who has created an illustrious career with roles in Peaky Blinders, Inception, The Dark Knight trilogy, and the Danny Boyle films Sunshine and 28 Days Later—offers the performance of the century. Murphy creates a palpable man in Oppenheimer; a fragile, tender, and distraught genius plagued by his own guilt. Nolan’s stylistically striking 12th film is an all-encompassing, surreal feature rooted in reality, offering a raw script and poignant performances by an all-star ensemble cast. In all its beauty and devastation, Oppenheimer will stand the test of time as one of the greatest films in cinematic history.

Nolan creates an effective structure for Oppenheimer. We’re shown one perspective through the eyes of historical villain and failed U.S. Secretary of Commerce nominee Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.), in black and white, and the other by Oppenheimer himself, in color. Strauss, a driving force in getting Oppenheimer’s security clearance revoked, is the catalyst of the physicist’s humiliation as the Cold War rages on in post-WWII America. This serves as our framework when understanding who Oppenheimer is and what he goes through—an introductory foundation for his trauma to build upon within the narrative.

We watch Oppenheimer rise from an anxiety-ridden, self-conscious young student in Germany to a brilliant professor of quantum physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Nolan, in his usual style, sucks us in and transports us. We stand by Oppenheimer as he ghosts through life in bursts of beautiful blurs, including a melancholy relationship with psychiatrist and communist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), a complicated marriage to alcoholic biologist Kitty Puening (Emily Blunt), and his indoctrination into the Manhattan Project by Leslie Groves (Matt Damon). We are introduced to the countless brilliant minds that support him, from Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) to Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett). Oppenheimer settles in the New Mexico desert community of Los Alamos with his fellow scientists and their families as they construct the bombs that will be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the aftermath of the destruction, Oppenheimer is the modern Prometheus: a man who has unleashed hell upon Earth and cursed mankind with destructive power. Though a staunch opposer of the furthering of nuclear weapons later in life, this serves too late. Oppenheimer quickly takes accountability for the blood on his hands, but he is written off as weak by those around him, including President Harry Truman (Gary Oldman, in a subtly sinister cameo).

The sequences of Oppenheimer’s staggering remorse are the most powerful in Nolan’s masterpiece. His lifelong trauma—including nightmarish visions of marred, peeling flesh, ash-filled corpses, and searing white lights—are carefully contrasted by earlier imagery of Oppenheimer, smiling, being hoisted up in triumph with the American flag billowing behind him. In these moments, we see the tragedy that is Oppenheimer, as both the man and the film—a story about a scientist ‘destroyed’ by his own creation.

dir. Christopher Nolan
180 min.

Opens Friday, 7/21 on 70mm at the Coolidge Corner Theatre and the Somerville Theatre (the latter of which is holding a “Barbenheimer” promotion in conjunction with the Capitol), and on IMAX at all equipped multiplexes. The closest location screening 70mm IMAX is Providence Place Cinemas in Providence, RI.

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