- Directed by Christopher Nolan
- Written by Christopher Nolan, based on the book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
- Starring Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon and Robert Downey Jr.
- Classification 14A; 180 minutes
- Opens in theatres July 21
Across his tremendously intimidating and terrifyingly imaginative career, Christopher Nolan – the last great hope of American blockbuster filmmaking – has burned cities to ash, carved up the subconscious like a slice of sashimi, bent time to his will and traversed the cosmos.
But a quarter-century deep into turning cold studio cash into magnificent cinematic puzzles, movies that it seems only his brain can truly unlock, Nolan has waited until now to destroy existence itself. Because while his new film, Oppenheimer, may look like a familiar biopic that has simply been scaled up to Nolan-sized heights, it is deeper, richer and more devastating than anything that the director has ever made. If Hollywood is ending as we know it – and all signs on that question point to a strong “maybe” – then Oppenheimer is the ideal movie to finish us all.
At its simplest (which is, really, never), Oppenheimer traces the career of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American theoretical physicist who is credited as the father of the atomic bomb, thanks to his leadership of the Manhattan Project during the thick of the Second World War. The biographical basics are all here, from the scientist’s education abroad to his friendship with Albert Einstein to his development of the Los Alamos National Laboratory to his ultimate nuclear achievement, a death-becomes-him moment that has altered the path of humanity. But just as nothing about Oppenheimer the man is neat or tidy – his politics, his passions, his poisoning of the world – nothing about Oppenheimer the film can be so basic.
Even Nolan’s story structure, seemingly tiered into two halves, is meta-splintered within itself. Technically, there is the first section labelled “Fission,” a narrative shot in full-colour that follows Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) on his steady rise throughout academia and then the U.S. military machine. The second section is called “Fusion,” in which black-and-white footage – shot on IMAX, a monochromatic first for the camera company – chronicles the fractious 1958 Senate confirmation of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), a close Oppenheimer ally who is set to become President Eisenhower’s secretary of commerce.
The two strands are destined for a chemical reaction of a sort – a cinematic boom – but it is not clear until the film’s final leg just what explosiveness has been hiding in plain sight all along. And when the incendiary moment does eventually arrive, audiences must then reckon with the three different timelines – the final tranche covering a secret 1954 hearing over Oppenheimer’s security clearance – have been weaving in and out all the while, requiring a recalculating of the entire narrative formula.
If this sounds needlessly complicated or confusing, well, it is, at least for the film’s first 10 minutes or so, during which it takes some effort to lock in with the story. But once it clicks – and it will – the film burns hard, fast and blindingly bright. Across three hours, which zip by with the speed of any roadrunner that might race outside the Los Alamos compound, Nolan’s opus progresses from character study to political thriller to heist film (to build the world’s biggest bomb, Oppenheimer must scour the globe like a polymathic Danny Ocean) to war movie to, ultimately, an existential horror show. There is more talk than action, so to speak, but the film is that rare big-budget thing, slicked to the nines, with the resources and tenacity to ask the big questions while answering them, too.
The responses contained within Oppenheimer will, or should, leave audiences so crumpled on the floor that anyone entertaining, say, the possibility of a double bill of this followed by Barbie should immediately reconsider. Oppenheimer is a captivating kind of commitment that requires significant breathing room, or maybe a spacious panic room. And anyone who might walk away from the film convinced that it is a glorification or obfuscation of a man whose machinations rained death down on Japan, as some early bad-faith talking points are already intent on miscommunicating, has either slept through the film or intentionally blinded themselves to its truths.
Helping Nolan achieve all this – and Oppenheimer is an achievement as much as it is an undertaking, vast and complicated and excitingly successful – are two elements: sound and fury. The former is provided by composer Ludwig Goransson (Tenet), who brings to Oppenheimer a shattering sonic blast that hums and rattles, unnerves and energizes. The fury? It arrives on twinned fronts – the crisp, arresting cinematography of regular Nolan collaborator Hoyte van Hoytema, and the army of that-guy actors who fill its huge frames.
Murphy, who is notching his sixth Nolan film here but his first where he’s the lead, is the wonderfully cracked centre of it all, alternately firm and fragile, monomaniacal and mournful. But the actor is aided by so many familiar faces doing jaggedly sharp work in the margins that it becomes hard to rank them or keep track.
Downey Jr. is hugely entertaining, even if parts of Strauss seem imported from Tony Stark’s cocky iron heart. But there is also Matt Damon as military man Leslie Groves, Kenneth Branagh as Danish physicist Niels Bohr, Jason Clarke as bulldog lawyer Roger Robb, actor and sometimes director Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems) as volatile hydrogen-bomb scientist Edward Teller, and big-hearted, soul-nourishing work from David Krumholtz as Nobel Prize winner Isidor Isaac Rabi. Plus, too many other talented men to count.
And they are all men who receive Nolan’s attention. Playing Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, Emily Blunt simply has very little to do outside the familiar modes of “alcoholic” and “victim of adultery.” An even worse fate befalls Florence Pugh, who as one of Oppenheimer’s early lovers must engage in a truly embarrassing sex scene the likes of which sully both the Bhagavad-Gita and the very concept of copulation. Would it have been too much for Nolan to slide in a regular player like Anne Hathaway into the role of chemist Lilli Hornig (here played, barely, by Olivia Thirlby)? Apparently so.
In addition to the stacked casting – come to think of it, where is good-luck charm Michael Caine? – it is darkly funny how neatly Oppenheimer fits into the Nolan canon. The split timelines are reminiscent of Dunkirk, the brilliant men talking about largely incomprehensible science a familiar sensation pulled from Interstellar, Inception and Tenet, and the cynicism of bureaucracy and its gatekeepers lifted from The Dark Knight trilogy. (Just for kicks, Nolan has Gary Oldman, who once played Gotham’s last honest cop James Gordon, pop by to play Harry S. Truman as if the U.S. president was gangland boss Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot.)
But the biggest thread tying Oppenheimer to the rest of Nolan’s work – and what makes this film the most accessible of his visions – its unshakable confidence that humanity has doomed itself. Just as Interstellar opened on a dying Earth and Tenet fashioned a James Bond movie in which the villains were climate refugees from the future, Oppenheimer pushes audiences into considering an arms race that, Nolan argues, is destined to end in mutually assured destruction. And unlike his other films that imagined all manner of solvable apocalypses, Oppenheimer does not pretend to offer hope.
Once the movie nears its end, and Oppenheimer the man must wrestle with the Oppenheimer-ized world he has helped birth, Nolan nobly and artfully assumes the role of bad-news messenger, a storyteller with one hell of a coda to deliver. Now Christopher Nolan becomes death, destroyer of worlds. Generous of him to offer everyone else doom with a view.