Opening 20 Jul 2023
The audience won’t feel untouched after sitting through director-writer Christopher Nolan’s epic three-hour film. At first, it’s confusing to figure out who is who (so many physicists in one film), which time period is involved (lots of flashbacks), and the significance of the black-and-white footage. As the movie progresses that all becomes clear, or irrelevant. Upon leaving the theater, historic and scientific facts infused with questions of morality intrude, bubble, and swirl. Upon leaving the theater the human heart is a bit heavier as if bearing even just a molecule of the burden J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb” was shouldering.
A gaunt Cillian Murphy brilliantly embodies J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who oversaw the development of the atomic bomb during WWII. There is a glimpse into his early life, and flashbacks of his neurotic student days and later academic life surrounded by intellectuals and renowned physicists. He falls in love with the political firebrand Jean (a magnificent Florence Pugh) and never quite gets over her. In 1942, he is approached at Berkeley by Lieutenant General Leslie Groves (a spot-on Matt Damon) to oversee the management of a clandestine government laboratory to be set up to develop the atomic bomb under the code-named The Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer’s resume isn’t ideal. He is a theoretical physicist not an experimental one, he has had no administrative experience, and he is said to run in leftist social circles. His wife Kitty (a seductive, feisty Emily Blunt), like his lover Jean, is rumored to have been a communist. Still, Groves is convinced Oppenheimer is his man and eventually agrees to his vision of building a town of more than 6,000 in Los Alamos and setting up the laboratory there in this remote area of New Mexico. They recruit the best and brightest scientists to bring their families to this centralized location to accelerate the building of the bomb. They are in an existential race against the Nazis building the bomb first.
Based on the book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Oppenheimer is depicted as a complex and conflicted genius who always understood what “success” would mean for mankind. Most of the film is subtly shown from his perspective, behind his melancholy, piercing blue eyes. Intermittently a parallel storyline emerges, the more objective almost newsreel black-and-white segments many featuring his archrival Lewis Strauss (a superbly sinister and unrecognizable Robert Downey Jr.). Strauss headed the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in the 1950s and is convinced Oppenheimer, who had strong reservations about developing an H bomb, is not to be trusted. Though not regretting his role, over the years Oppenheimer had transformed from being the creator of nuclear weapons to being the alarmist about the dangers of nuclear war. Truman had called him a “crybaby” when he said, “I feel we have blood on our hands” when visiting him in the Oval Office. Strauss spearheads closed hearings before the AEC to have Oppenheimer stripped of his security clearance. This is a humbling blow for “the father of the atomic bomb” who had been heralded as the ultimate American hero following the war.
For technical film buffs it is interesting to note Nolan relied on practical effects and analog methods rather than CGI technology. Also, it is filmed in a combination of IMAX 65mm and 65mm large-format film—including IMAX black-and-white analog photography. So it’s best to watch it in an IMAX theater, if possible.
Ludwig Göransson’s score including the engagement of 40 violinists is dramatic, strident, intense, and ever-present mirroring the inner tension of the main character Oppenheimer and the historic events unfolding. Which made the one moment there no music exceptional: the moment the first atomic bomb was tested in the New Mexican desert there was DEAD silence.
Nolan also has enlisted a massive ensemble which includes Tom Conti as Albert Einstein, Gary Oldman as Harry Truman, Kenneth Branagh as Danish physicist Niels Bohr, Casey Affleck as military intelligence officer Boris Pash, Josh Hartnett as physicist Ernest Lawrence, Rami Malek as physicist David Hill, and for his German fans Matthias Schweighöfer as German physicist Werner Heisenberg. However, at times, they seem like cardboard figures placed there just to shine a spotlight on Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. who play the roles of their lifetimes.
Nolan shows no footage of the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are no scenes of the devastation and destruction they caused. Yet, during a press conference right after the bombing, Oppenheimer has a horrific vision watching a young woman (Flora Nolan, daughter of the director) in the audience and seeing her face melting off. That’s as gruesome as it gets, and yet, there is a smothering feeling of terror and doom enveloping the entire film. As Oppenheimer thought when watching the mushroom cloud during the first test in the desert, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” (Pat Frickey)
Writer-director Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is brilliantly phenomenal. Broken down into three epochs in the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, who astutely thinks it’s Nolan’s magus opus), an American theoretical physicist crucially important in establishing the USA’s position in developing nuclear weapons and sometimes referred to as “the father of the atomic bomb.” For background material in his intelligently constructed and humanistic screenplay, Nolan turned to Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird’s 2005 biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Nolan utilizes IMAX 65 mm and 65 mm large-format color and black/white film, plus the attending sets/costume dressing for distinguishing eras during Oppenheimer’s life, often concurrently with 20th century historic events, e.g., his Security Clearance Hearing occurred during McCarthyism and the Red Scare, a low point for USA that sent intellects, scientists, artists, et al. East, just as Hitler, Nazism and the second World War sent them Westward.
The young Oppenheimer is a gifted genius, his curiosities including literature, languages, politics, people. He studies with/under the cream de la crème of physicists, scientists: Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), Werner Heisenberg (Matthias Schweighöfer), Enrico Fermi (Danny Deferrari), Hans Bethe (Gustaf Skarsgård), Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), Ernest Lawrence (Mark Killeen), Edward Teller (Benny Safdie) etc. At Berkeley (University of California as a full professor) friends include Haakon Chevalier (Jefferson Hall); Oppy, through brother Frank (Dylan Arnold), attends left-wing political meetings where he meets psychiatrist, physician, and Communist Party member Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh); theirs is an affair of passion, need. Although it is Katherine "Kitty" Puening (Emily Blunt), biologist, botanist, and former Communist Party member, he marries. In 1942 Oppenheimer is recruited to work on the Manhattan Project, then appointed head of New Mexico’s Los Alamos Laboratory, directed by Lieutenant General Leslie Richard Groves Jr. (Matt Damon) of the Army Corp of Engineers. Oppenheimer is recruited to the AEC (US Atomic Energy Commission) by Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), a founding (1946) commissioner and a patient, vindictive person. During Strauss’s confirmation hearing for U.S. Secretary of Commerce, simultaneously audiences attend Oppenheimer’s disputed AEC hearings with special counsel Roger Robb (Jason Clarke).
Nolan’s script is discerningly astute, droll, and plays with semantics, e.g., the scene with “to” and “through.” It profiles two very different, yet similar characters performed by two outstanding actors, Murphy and Downing, Jr. John Papsidera cast the stellar ensemble. Makeup and prosthetic department head Luisa Abel and team’s work is amazing – Downy Jr. is unrecognizable. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography, Ludwig Göransson’s score and editor Jennifer Lame’s contributions—inserting archival material, e.g., original President Truman’s (Gary Oldman in the film) radio address—are fantastic. Recreating the Trinity test, etc. Nolan used practical methods rather than computer-generated graphics.
To quote President Truman, “The world will remember this day.” Oppenheimer is stunning, groundbreaking and, if possible, see at a cinema with analogue 70mm-Version (Savoy Kino in Hamburg). Oppenheimer’s exquisiteness is a memorable, relevant must-see experience. (Marinell Haegelin)