Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker with a mind for engineering. He’s obsessed with time, constructing stories that move simultaneously at different speeds like the hour, minute, and second hands of a wristwatch. While his films often deal with heavy themes and complex protagonists, it’s usually more interesting to talk about the shape of Nolan’s stories than about their content. The Dark Knight and Inception are thrilling and technically innovative, but they’re not quite as smart as they appear to be on the surface. His latest feature, which stars longtime collaborator Cillian Murphy as the theoretical physicist who led the Manhattan Project, employs all of his usual technical and structural tricks in the service of a story that is truly as complex as it is complicated. Simultaneously a biography, a mystery, a polemic, and a dense character study, Oppenheimer feels like the film Christopher Nolan has been preparing to make his entire career, and it may very well be his best work.
OPPENHEIMER ★★★★ (4/4 stars)
Like The Prestige, Dunkirk, and Memento, the story of Oppenheimer is conveyed via multiple intersecting temporalities. Nolan is kind enough to label the film’s two narrative spines for us: “Fission,” a recollection of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life and career based on his testimony to a security clearance council in 1954, and “Fusion,” a counterpoint from the perspective of Admiral Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) during his confirmation hearings to become Secretary of Commerce in 1959. Despite not always moving in a linear fashion, the interwoven accounts remain both logically and emotionally coherent, painting a portrait of a controversial figure that is both sympathetic and damning. The two framing devices are not the only courtroom dramas at hand here. The film itself is a trial, and just like the interrogations of Oppenheimer and Strauss, there is no real burden of proof. Nolan is playing both the prosecution and the defense. The trial isn’t fair, he knows it, and he wants you to know.
At its heart, Oppenheimer is about the terrifying transformation of theory into practice. The story introduces us to Robert as a young and ambitious scholar in the very new field of quantum physics, but like Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) before him, he is a theorist, not an engineer. How his research is applied is not his concern, or so he asserts until the consequences of his work become impossible for any sane man to ignore. This theme seeps into other parts of his story, such as the juxtaposition of his communist sympathies against his practical political agnosticism, or the reverberations of his irresponsible romantic affairs. How many degrees must exist between cause and effect, between ideation and execution, to assuage him of his guilt?
Aside from being heady and profound, Oppenheimer is also much more fun than you might expect. Nolan keeps this massive monster moving at a steady, bracing pace. Though the relentless momentum and wall-to-wall musical score can have a flattening effect, granting practically every scene equal gravity, it also never allows your attention to waver. At no point in Oppenheimer’s three-hour runtime does it feel safe to run to the bathroom. Urgent plot developments and character context unfold constantly, giving this epic biopic the grip of a murder mystery or a political thriller.
And for a historical biopic about one of the most terrible events in recorded history, Oppenheimer is surprisingly funny. The playful, Sorkinesque banter between Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer and Matt Damon’s prickly General Leslie Groves is every bit as charming as the timeline-spanning bromance of John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in Tenet. Emily Blunt slays as Robert’s iron-willed wife Kitty, a character whose minimal role in the film’s first two hours is merely the windup for an Oscar-worthy uppercut. Nolan has assembled a huge cast of character actors consisting of about half of Hollywood’s white dudes, but it’s a particular showcase for performers with creepy eyes and punchable faces. Oppenheimer offers a murder’s row of actors you would cast as serial killers — Dane DeHaan, David Dastmalchian, Casey Affleck, Rami Malik, Benny Safdie — and utilizes each of them perfectly. This helps to raise star Cillian Murphy, who filled the serial-killer space in Nolan’s Batman Begins, to the relative position of Handsome Leading Man.
Murphy is haunting and nuanced as Oppenheimer, but of all of the film’s sharp performances, Robert Downey Jr.‘s Lewis Strauss stands head and shoulders above. Downey plays Strauss as Oppenheimer’s Burr or Salieri, an insecure political operator whose obsession with the “father of the atom bomb” contains both sincere reverence and seething resentment. After a decade sealed in that Iron Man suit, Downey finally reasserts himself as a generation-defining talent, the reason we ever gave a shit about Tony Stark in the first place.
One might imagine that the atom bomb itself might emerge as the lead of Oppenheimer, particularly as the film’s press tour has emphasized the use of practical, optical effects in its portrayal rather than CGI. Nolan and company’s depictions of nuclear reactions both microscopic and gargantuan are, indeed, awe-inspiring, and even as a critic who finds the trend of filmmakers boasting how little VFX they’ve used to be a snobbish affectation, there’s no denying the value of this creative decision. However, more striking than the images themselves is the fact that they help to underscore the film’s humanity rather than distract from it. In Oppenheimer’s first act, shots of sparks and particles are intercut with Robert’s studies, a visual representation of his brilliance. Its first two hours are all building to the Trinity bomb test, which we witness in all its terrifying power. From this point on, however, we no longer see the destructive power of the atom bomb, because Robert himself refuses to look at it. Instead, we feel it, as if his unwillingness to view the reaction he started in the outside world has caused it to begin inside his body, and ours.
There’s an argument to be made that any film about J. Robert Oppenheimer is inherently apologia for America’s bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or at least for the man who made it possible. The absence of a Japanese perspective in the story or any images of the bombings or their aftermath may, too, become the subject of debate in the coming weeks. However, the impossibility of a fair or objective reading is baked into the text of Oppenheimer. The film can either be read as Christopher Nolan defending Robert Oppenheimer, or as Nolan condemning himself for doing so. Is an attempt to understand a guilty person, in itself, an act of forgiveness? Where does the theory end and the practice begin?
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.