In July of 1945, the first test of the Atomic Bomb was conducted under a cloud of secrecy in New Mexico; a month later, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to effectively end World War Two. It was the first and only time nuclear weapons have been used in armed conflict. So perhaps it is fitting that this epic film about the ‘father of the atomic bomb’, J. Robert Oppenheimer, hit theaters in the summertime as opposed to the fall, when most films of this caliber start vying for award-season buzz. This is not your typical summer blockbuster. It is, however, in many ways, typical Christopher Nolan (director of Tenet, Interstellar, Inception, Dunkirk, The Dark Knight, Memento). It’s gripping, cerebral, non-linear, and long (three hours). Nolan’s filmmaking style doesn’t particularly appeal to me; but there’s no denying he’s got a loyal following of cinefiles and knows how to gather a stellar cast.
Oppenheimer is a big movie with a big story to tell that needs to be seen on the big screen (ideally IMAX 70mm). It’s designed to be immersive, bringing the audience into the room when the decision is made to push the button. A decision that led to tens of thousands of horrifying casualties. A triumph of science; a tragedy for humanity. A cautionary tale that also underscores what great minds can achieve when the stakes are at their highest. The film is scary and entertaining. So many paradoxes.
Cillian Murphy plays Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist tapped to lead the Manhattan Project and direct the Los Alamos laboratory during WWII. It’s Murphy’s first lead role in a Nolan film and he’s perfectly cast to play the conflicted scientist. Solid as his performance is, Murphy is not left to carry the film alone. He’s challenged and lifted by a supporting cast that includes Emily Blunt as his smart, complicated, alcoholic wife Kitty; Florence Pugh as his ex-lover with communist ties, Jean Tatlock; an almost unrecognizable Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission who serves as the film’s primary antagonist; Matt Damon as Leslie Groves, the general who recruited Oppenheimer into the project; and a bevy of other talented actors.
Oppenheimer is based on the book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” that was first published in 2005. The movie will likely inspire many who hadn’t yet read the book to do so, or to catch a more traditional documentary on Oppenheimer, his celebrity, his brilliance, his flaws, his regrets, and the revocation of his security clearance at the height of McCarthyism.
The film does not offer up any definitive answers. Rather, it demands audience investment– in time, and energy. The payoff is informative, thought-provoking, and sometimes darkly humorous. And it’s sure to resurface come Oscar time.
Arty Chick weighs in: It is one hell of a movie with some great performances and a script that will surely be up for some awards season love later this year. (If the awards season happens in light of on-going strikes.). It is a story that needed to be told, though I think it could have been shorter without losing a lot. I did not see it its 70mm version (Only 19 cinemas in the country are showing it in its intended 70mm IMAX film format), but still think the sound design is pretty awesome. At the end though, I am not sure I know who Oppie was. Sure he was conflicted about his creation, but beyond that I didn’t get to know much about him. Strauss’s vendetta against him was by far the most interesting part of the story and never entirely explained. As Mainstream Chick says, I think the film will push those of us who need to know more to either read the book it’s based on or seek out some of the other writings about the “Father of the Atom Bomb.” (My own search led me to this article with a lot of great books and documentaries, should you choose to do some further exploring of the subject.)
Oppenheimer opens exclusively in theaters with ginormous screens on July 23. Here’s a three-minute snapshot of the three-hour thriller: