Perhaps Nolan’s best directing of his career, Oppenheimer is told with so much purpose and precision.
There is always so much hype around a Christopher Nolan movie, and oftentimes that hype is warranted. In this critic’s professional opinion, he hasn’t made a bad or even below average movie in his career. Nolan is back after his latest film, Tenet, opened during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 to less favorable reviews. Thankfully, Oppenheimer is akin to his 2017 film Dunkirk and is the best character study of the filmmaker’s career, which might ultimately help him nab his first-ever Oscar. Oppenheimer is filmmaking at its finest and will end up being one of the most important movies of our generation.
Besides Oppenheimer being an incredible achievement in filmmaking, it is at the forefront very important and informational. Many people know the name, but not everyone knows what exactly happened in Oppenheimer’s life leading up to the creation of the atomic bomb and the years that followed. While the theoretical physicist was seen by many as brilliant, so much happened to him during this life, including struggling with the feeling of blood on his hands with his creation along with his loyalty to the United States being under constant scrutiny. His brother was a former member of the communist party and his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) had affiliations with them as well before they met. There are also several events that happened during his time at Los Alamos (where the Manhattan Project happened) that appeared questionable years later as the United States government denied his security clearance.
Similar to Dunkirk (outside of also taking place during World War II), Oppenheimer takes us through different timelines and different perspectives of events happening simultaneously. Given the film’s three-hour runtime, a straightforward showing of the events before and after the Manhattan Project would’ve been less effective in keeping viewers interested. However, Nolan’s juggling of different storylines and timelines is effective in its purpose of telling a complicated story about such a complicated man. While the movie can be hard to follow at times (especially in the first act), it gets easier as the movie goes on and the converging of separate storylines in the film’s climax make for a satisfying viewing experience. In addition to that, the pacing of the movie is top-notch and makes it feel much shorter than three hours before the credits roll.
But the most impressive aspect of Oppenheimer is how it dives deeply into the mind of an extremely brilliant, complex, and complicated man. Shot and edited in a way that perfectly displays the historical figure’s internal struggle with morality and how particular he was, there are some scenes that are so stylized in this way that make it hard to look away from the screen. It also helps that Cillian Murphy makes it all look so easy as the titular character and gives a career-best performance in this biographical thriller that will likely see him score an Oscar nomination.
The third act moves a bit slower than the first two and it will likely divide some people, mainly because of how Nolan portrays Oppenheimer, United States politicians, and the government itself. Throughout history, people have had mixed opinions on Oppenheimer because he was the “Father of the Atomic Bomb” and had questionable political views and affiliations. Nolan paints him more as the victim in the final act and in turn, the United States government is shown as an antagonist. Even though this is how it all played out, some people may not like how it comes across in the final 60 minutes. However, it works very well within the narrative thanks in large part to Robert Downey Jr., who plays a bigger role than you might suspect as Lewis Strauss and is great enough in the performance to likely score him an Oscar nomination alongside his castmate Cillian.
Overall, Oppenheimer is stunning and lives up to the hype. Nolan continues to be the best-working director today and turns in arguably his best work. While it might not have the rewatch value of some of his other films, it could go down as his most important one. Of course, it should go without saying that the movie is a must-see in IMAX where the movie looks and sounds great in a format Nolan continues to perfect in his movies.
(out of five stars)