Vague Visages’ Oppenheimer review contains minor spoilers. Christopher Nolan’s 2023 movie stars Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt and Robert Downey Jr. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
Trinity, the Manhattan Project and Los Alamos — for the greatest generation, these elements (alluding to the atomic bomb) led America to victory, bringing peace to a world gone wrong. Years later, these terms appear in textbooks, reflections of a bygone age. Some cinephiles associate these words with 1950s B films like Kiss Me Deadly (1955), hinting at a mutually assured destruction. But what of the man who opened Pandora’s box? What of American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb? Even his German rival, Werner Heisenberg, has broader appeal, in no small part due to Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013). Still, the real Oppenheimer was one of the most complex individuals and scientific geniuses in history. Fortunately, in Nolan, fans can trust the filmmaker once again. Not only does Oppenheimer prove to be one the best-crafted biopics in recent memory, but it also boldly reaffirms the director’s auteur status. Nolan delivers an experience that is as much the caper as 2008’s The Dark Knight, as musically engrossing as Inception (2010) and an unabashedly mental mind screw ala Memento (2000).
In keeping with his cape crusader roots, Nolan recontextualizes plain old Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) into a tragically flawed idealist on a “mission,” a Batman for science. Much like Bruce Wayne’s nightmares of bats lead to him gaining the ability to bring order to chaos, Oppenheimer knows that if he can unravel his “visions,” then theoretical physics will reveal itself and save the day. Only then can the subject bring scientific order to his all too broken world. Oppenheimer’s conviction puts him on the same path towards enlightenment as his scientific idols and colleagues, Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), Isidor Rabi (David Krumholtz) and Heisenberg (Matthias Schweighofer). Yet, when sensing Heisenberg’s intentions aren’t as “noble” as the rest, Murphy’s character sets out for the University of California, Berkeley, with the intention to apply his scientific expertise to bolster and defend America. Oppenheimer’s expertise in quantum mechanics lands on the radar of Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), the lieutenant general in charge of the Manhattan Project. Groves is Oppenheimer’s Jim Gordon, a man who tolerates bending the rules for the greater good. As audiences discover, this superhero build-up soon transitions to the real meat of Nolan’s tale, which focuses on self-deception, unhealthy obsession, amoral womanizing, political infighting and ultimately a subcommittee hearing that puts Oppenheimer in confrontation with Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.), the chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Just as Gotham City turns on Batman, the American government torments Oppenheimer after his heroic feats.
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In the wake of COVID-19 and the financial woes of post-streaming Hollywood, Nolan might have been tempted to play it safe. To viewers’ great delight, this is not the case in Oppenheimer. Nolan stays true to form, creating an iconoclastic vision of the period; this is apparent in his build up of the relationships and complex emotions of core characters, such as the subject, his first love (Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock) and his wife (Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer). It’s through these three individuals that Nolan forms a morally questionable trinity, akin to the pages of pulp dime novels, presenting the bare-bones facts of Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s 2005 book American Prometheus. He expands this entanglement into the depths of man’s deeper and morally gray psyche. The vampish interactions of Tatlock and Oppenheimer feature dialogue reminiscent of a Howard Hawks screenplay. Pugh effectively provides come-hither posture, coupled with a slightly skittish sense of doubt that sells the whole “dammed if they do and damned if they don’t” nature of her questionable relationship with Oppie. Blunt, meanwhile, finds her identity as Kitty by playing up the shrew with the heart of gold, a solid counterbalance to Pugh’s l’enfant terrible harlot portrayal of Jean. Nolan steps out of his comfort zone by allowing Blunt to be the prime force that holds the Oppenheimer family together, downplaying Kitty’s alcohol addiction and not allowing her to fall into the trapping of yet another Nolan broom closet corpse.
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It could easily be said that Oppenheimer’s story might have yielded an even more robust moral stance by making Kitty the focal point, but — as Nolan points out in interviews — the subject is one of the most influential and significant figures in American history. And Murphy’s consistent and engrossing performance seals the deal. In the context of American Prometheus, Oppie is a charismatic and intellectually curious leader. In every Oppenheimer scene in which Murphy’s character is being schooled by his peers, he presents himself as a humble Willy Wonka, soft spoken and enthusiastic in every conversation. And yet, at the same time, Oppie emerges as a contradiction and enigma. He is the great improviser in one scene, and then he’s a quivering scarecrow. Murphy even goes as far as to play up the lankiness of Oppenheimer by obscuring and exaggerating his posture.
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As Groves, Damon performs satisfactorily. The same can be said of the rest of the cast, and it’s good to see Downey in a role in which he’s not a rich, extravagant playboy. The breadth of Rami Malek’s talent is barely tapped in the role of scientist David Hill, and Benny Safdie is a treat as scientist Edward Teller. But, Oppenheimer is a director-driven project, and Nolan runs a tight ship.
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Just as Oppenheimer was a great collaborator and brought out the best in people, the same can be said of Nolan’s directing style. The filmmaker has struck the perfect balance of being overseeing but too overbearing. The first indication is the sound mixing. Yes, fans, you can finally quit groveling; Nolan and his entire sound department heard your complaints and complied. Oppenheimer’s ADR mixers and production sound mixer, Willie D. Burton, should receive Oscars for pulling off the impossible.
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Most importantly, Nolan’s collaboration with composer Ludwig Göransson yields a superb music soundtrack. In an interview with NME, Göransson describes working with Nolan to find the emotional core of the whole experience, mostly employing the complex, diverse range of the violin to match the vast range of Oppenheimer’s emotions. Music is the star of the show, accentuating numerous scenes throughout, including the diegetic mixing of the ball and chain during the Trinity test coupled with non-diegetic music mimicking the actual objects on display. The real Gesamtkunstwerk moment occurs soon after as the camera subtly sways back and forth and Göransson’s violins and piano arrangement intensifies, eerily reflecting Oppie’s and Groves’ trepidatious paranoia, until BOOM! The bomb goes off, and there is nothing but muted white noise and a hot red flash.
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As Joseph L. Mankiewicz proclaims in David Fincher’s Mank (2020), “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.” Within three hours, Nolan does his best to give audiences a glimpse into the complex mind of Oppenheimer. The man was without question an immense intellect, but his strength lied not in the ability to discover or blaze fresh new paths. It was rather his ability to understand, evaluate and assimilate the groundbreaking work of others and then extend it forward by integrating other groundbreaking theories. Oppenheimer had no difficulty in simultaneously holding two incongruous ideas in his mind at a time, objectively examining each and evaluating the strengths and weaknesses. This is a prerequisite for the quantum physicist who must accept that light is both a particle and a wave. Albert Einstein’s visionary intellect had literally opened the door of quantum mechanics, but he could not go through it because he could not accept the paradoxes to which it leads. Nolan portrays Oppenheimer as mastering this in several facets of his life. The subject empathizes with his Jewish heritage, but he learns Sanskrit, not Yiddish. Oppenheimer marries Kitty but continues an affair with Jean. He works to defend democracy but sees aspects of communism worth consideration. Following his birth in New York City — a steaming mass of humanity — Oppenheimer retreats to the desert of New Mexico like an Old Testament prophet. With near zero flaws, Nolan provides an epic tribute to one of the most influential men in world history.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.
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