As summer movies go, writer-director Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is in a class by itself. American moviegoers looking for a brief escape from the heat with brainless action or forgettable fun can waste their money on the latest Indiana Jones and Mission Impossible clones, people who will laugh at a public hanging have Asteroid City and Theater Camp, and anyone who isn’t allergic to pink has the insulting, obnoxious and idiotic Barbie. But if you want a single cinematic experience worth remembering after the summer of 2023 has come and gone, Oppenheimer is the one.
OPPENHEIMER ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
The American public is not programmed to savor and embrace a three-hour movie about nuclear physics, so my serious concern for the longevity of this epic biopic about the man who invented the atomic bomb and changed the world is genuine. Initially, they’ll be intrigued enough by the rave reviews to see what the excitement is all about, but after hard-core Christopher Nolan fans and what’s left of a dwindling mature audience have seen it and word of mouth sets in, I doubt if Oppenheimer has legs. I hope I’m wrong, because this is a film with intelligence, purpose and historic value.
Divided into sections which, in Nolan’s traditional dedication to style over substance, bounce all over the place like Mexican jumping beans, the film begins at the height of World War II after Einstein’s theory about splitting the atom is confirmed and the United States competes with Germany to see who will develop the inevitable atomic bomb first. J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Irish actor Cillian Murphy in a titanic performance that dominates almost every scene) was the scientist recruited by the military to head the Manhattan Project, the secret branch of the government devoted to creating the most powerful bomb known to mankind. Being a Jewish physicist with left wing political leanings, he worked feverishly to defeat the Nazis and end the war. Since he already owned a ranch in New Mexico, it was there that a town called Los Alamos was constructed to house the temporary community that would build and eventually test the bomb once it was developed. The midsection of the film bogs down in a boring attempt to explain quantum physics, devoting a huge mass of time to the scientific elements of the bomb—uranium, titanium, hydrogen, plutonium, and the proportions of each. The internecine relations among members of the Manhattan Project are confusing and complex, but to relieve the scientific tedium Nolan introduces a human element as Oppenheimer’s staff nicknames him “Oppy” and in his signature pork pie hat he masters the art of mixing the perfect martini and debates his mistress (Florence Pugh) on the pros and cons of Communism.
The film never shows what the bomb did to end the war, but a good chunk of it concentrates on the first detonation in a section of the New Mexico desert called White Sands. Oppenheimer did succeed in beating the Nazis at developing the bomb, but to his everlasting regret, Hitler committed suicide and Germany surrendered in May,1945, so instead the U.S., against his better judgment, dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, ending the war in Japan instead. The result made Oppy the most famous man in the world, but he was so riddled with guilt about the disastrous toll his bomb took on multitudes of civilian lives in Japan that he would have nothing to do with President Harry Truman’s gung-ho plan to move forward with the hydrogen bomb, an even more devastating weapon of mass destruction, alienating the government by devoting himself to arms control.
The final section of the film details the ugly postwar ramifications of Oppy’s about face, when times had changed and the toxicity of the shameful McCarthy era made it easy to indict a man whose brother (Dylan Arnold) and wife (a firm, implacable Emily Blunt) were both once members of the Communist Party. So a figure once considered the most important man on the planet found himself betrayed, persecuted and humiliated by the same U.S. government he had once worked for so diligently, victimized in a smear campaign spearheaded by his once worshipful colleague Lewis Strauss (a wonderful Robert Downey, Jr.), who accused him of being a Russian spy. The movie goes off the rails again as it slides downward in a series of Senate interrogations that pit the numerous participants in Oppy’s life and career against each other.
Oppenheimer is inarguably an engrossing film of vast moral conviction and conflicted conscience, but its admirable scope is not always lucid. In no way linear in structure—and gimmicked up with pretentious noise and camera cuts, switching from color to black and white, imploding with the sound of bomb blasts and stomping feet—the film becomes exasperating. Christopher Nolan films are usually about visuals, not character or plot, and the actors are along for the ride. This one, for a change, is about one of the most demanding and controversial chapters in American history and the man who made it happen. Nolan compiles the facts, but doesn’t seem content with facts alone. His inability to tell a story straight (or maybe the key word is his refusal) scatters a maximum of diverse elements in a dozen directions at once. A great story becomes plausible but incoherent.
Fortunately, the story survives, and the one thing that works consistently throughout is the galvanizing centerpiece performance by Cillian Murphy. He’s been in other films (including Nolan’s Dunkirk) but his output has never been prolific. This time he’s provocative and profound, in a demanding role headed for Oscar recognition. And he’s supported by an astounding cast, including unrecognizable Gary Oldman as a blunt and unlikeable Harry S. Truman, Tom Conti as Albert Einstein, Matt Damon as the lieutenant general who appoints Oppy to head the Manhattan Project in the first place, and Remi Malek, Josh Hartnett, Matthew Modine, Kenneth Branagh, Tony Goldwyn, Casey Affleck, among others, every of them exemplary and perfect.
Despite the flaws, Oppenheimer is an unforgettable rarity in a currently stagnant cultural swamp of movie mediocrity. See it and learn something.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.