The moniker “father of the atomic bomb” might not be a life goal for everyone, but for J. Robert Oppenheimer, lead scientist of the Manhattan Project which developed the weapon of mass destruction, it was something he was certainly driven to accomplish. Writer/director Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited film, OPPENHEIMER, takes “the audience into the mind and the experience of a person who sat at the absolute center of the largest shift in history” according to Nolan.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ‘American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer’ by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Nolan was himself obsessed with bringing the story of this brilliant scientist to the big screen in a way only he could. Filmed with IMAX cameras, this bigger-than-life chronicle of Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy, and his very select team and all the other supporting characters, is spread across decades, from his time at Cambridge University to a select hearing in 1954 conducted in secrecy, which would ultimately strip him of his U.S. government security clearance.
Recruited by Brigadier General Leslie Groves, Jr. (Matt Damon), director of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer assembled an impressive group of elite scientists in Los Alamos, New Mexico, to develop the atomic bomb, a project that was already two years behind the Germans. Physicist Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), the 1922 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), “father of the hydrogen bomb” and Oppenheimer’s younger brother, Frank (Dylan Arnold), were a few of the other geniuses selected to participate. And all were present at “Trinity”, the codename for the explosion site, where on July 16, 1945, their work was finally tested.
But OPPENHEIMER is about so much more than the bomb and all the machinations that went into making it. It turns out that the accomplished Dr. Oppenheimer was also something of a womanizer. Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), a Stanford-educated psychiatrist, is a member of the Communist Party of the United States of America and one of Oppenheimer’s lovers. His wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), who was married to someone else when she met Oppenheimer, is also a gifted biologist who ends up taking a back seat to her husband’s work and suffers dearly because of it. She doesn’t exactly conform to the norms of mother and wife, but she is devoted to Oppenheimer in her own way.
And then there is Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.), who in 1947 was a founding commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission. It is Strauss who prevails upon Oppenheimer to become director of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton University, also in 1947. Their precarious relationship was made even more so when Oppenheimer humiliates Strauss during a Senate hearing. He exacts his revenge upon Oppenheimer, thus causing him to lose that security clearance, ending his role in government and shaping policy for nuclear power.
Apparently, when Nolan calls, actors answer and are thrilled to do so. Murphy, who had worked with the director before, but not in a starring role, jumped at the opportunity to play Oppenheimer --- and he is sublime. His deeply angled face and wide expressive eyes lend themselves to this complicated, astonishing, fascinating man. It’s a masterful portrayal by Murphy --- seriously riveting. You can’t look away when he’s on screen --- and he’s on screen a lot. He will be a contender for Best Actor come Oscar season.
The other two big Oscar possibilities are Downey, Jr. and Blunt. Each is magnetic in their roles. Blunt is effortlessly quietly dynamic, playing the alcoholic Kitty with honesty and the toughness a wife in her position needs. She’s just so good it’s unnerving. Downey, Jr. is downright spectacular. Strauss’ bitterness --- and pettiness --- is on full display in his portrayal. He’s at once smarmy and yet captivating. During Strauss’ Senate confirmation hearing you can feel --- smell --- his desperation. Strauss is the role of a lifetime for this highly skilled actor.
OPPENHEIMER is a major feat for all involved. The editing by Jennifer Lame is incredible, though personally, I think Nolan could have trimmed at least 20 minutes off the running time of 180 and still maintained the film’s integrity. There are a few scenes in which the story lags and could possibly be detrimental to the overall reception to OPPENHEIMER. But despite its length, David managed to stay awake. Bravo, David!
The massive cast is amazing with each member adding to the success of this monumental undertaking. And I would be remiss in not mentioning the powerful performance by Damon, who never seems to disappoint. But for such an important narrative, things such as production designs, cinematography, costumes and music are paramount.
Ruth De Jong is the designer responsible for the jaw-dropping sets and locations. Director of Photography Hoyte van Hoytema has worked with Nolan four times, including INTERSTELLAR, TENET and DUNKIRK. The meticulous costumes, including Oppenheimer’s legendary hat, are courtesy of Ellen Mirojnick, her first time working with Nolan, and the striking score was created by Oscar-winning composer, Ludwig GÖransson, who also wrote the music for TENET.
OPPENHEIMER is by far Nolan’s best film to date. It’s an exquisite examination of one man’s determination to save the world by ending World War II --- and then his self- recrimination for having done so. The brilliance of J. Robert Oppenheimer is eclipsed by the importance of his story.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!
Well, it was worth the wait. For almost a year at a major crossroads in LA, writer/director Christopher Nolan teased thousands of motorists every day with a giant billboard counting down exactly when his film OPPENHEIMER would be released. Beginning September 22, 2022, the huge sign, with a tagline of “The World Forever to Change”, was recording the months, days, hours, minutes and seconds elapsed until July 21, 2023.
I’m guessing this precursor for his movie about the man who invented the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, had a lot of people scrambling to Google or Wikipedia to learn what “Oppenheimer” meant. However, after the searing portrayal of the title character by Cillian Murphy, the name Oppenheimer will no longer be a mystery. In fact, Murphy, in his sixth collaboration with Nolan, has likely established himself as the actor to beat at next year’s Academy Awards.
An amazing ensemble cast brings this story to life. The actors include Emily Blunt, Robert Downey, Jr., Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Rami Malek, Josh Hartnett, Kenneth Branagh, Casey Affleck, Matthew Modine, Dane De Haan and Jason Clarke. It is Clarke’s turn as special counsel Roger Rabb, whose ferocious interrogation of Oppenheimer, accused of being a Communist sympathizer, that really stands out. And the best actor you’ve never heard of, Macon Blair, plays Oppenheimer’s legal mentor, Lloyd Garrison.
Damon portrays Leslie Groves, Jr., a brigadier general in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and director of the Manhattan Project where the development of the atomic bomb took place in Los Alamos, New Mexico. There was always the question of whether or not the release of an atomic bomb might actually set the Earth’s atmosphere on fire, and the scientists were never positive one way or the other. So just before the critical “Trinity”, codename for the test site, Groves looks at Oppenheimer and says “Robert, please make sure you don’t blow up the world”. Great films often breed memorable lines.
Speaking of Damon, has he ever given less than an exemplary performance? His incredible turn here as a man politically opposite to the left-leaning Oppenheimer adds to his career resume. Groves becomes close friends with the physicist about whom Nolan says, “Like it or not, J. Robert Oppenheimer is the most important person who ever lived”.
Nolan manages to capture the essence of Oppenheimer’s mixed emotions about his invention. On the one hand, he is treated by many as an American hero, having created the impetus for Japan to surrender, ending World War II after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In one memorable scene, Oppenheimer speaks to his rabid co-workers waving American flags and chanting “Oppy! Oppy!”. Yet throughout the film he is subjected to intense scrutiny from special counsel Robb and others for alleged Communist connections. And Nolan inserts visual effects of people who suffered severely because of the bombing. Oppenheimer appears to suffer from a sense of overwhelming guilt about the bombing of two major cities in Japan. A brief visit with President Harry Truman in the Oval Office gives him some respite from that.
The acting accolades for this movie are endless. The (initially) almost unrecognizable Downey, Jr.’s portrayal of Lewis Strauss, founding commissioner of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and Eisenhower cabinet candidate, is what gives politicians or would-be politicos a bad name. His so-called friendship with Oppenheimer proves to be a big lie. And Downey, Jr. plays the villain to the hilt.
Some of the actors have smaller roles but Nolan has provided many of them with powerhouse moments. Blunt, for example, turns up the heat as Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty at his secret hearing. For a mere 90 seconds or so her testimony is riveting. And Malek, seen briefly twice before as a minor assistant sans dialogue, is captivating in his brief defense of Oppenheimer.
The entire crew is astonishing, and no doubt OPPENHEIMER is headed for multiple award nominations. But for certain it will be hard to deny the editing of this film led by Jennifer Lame. And the music by composer Ludwig GÖransson is effectively jarring.
Based on the book ‘American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer’ by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, OPPENHEIMER must be seen on the big screen. At three hours, it could have been trimmed a bit, but moviegoers who pay close attention will be rewarded with one of the most exciting, tense and important films in recent memory.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!