Review: Christopher Nolan Gets Personal, Emotional and Political in a Sprawling, Engrossing Oppenheimer

Although it sometimes feels like we’re watching a history textbook or a lengthy biography, writer/director Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a sprawling, visually engrossing cinematic lesson in technology, innovation, American hubris, ego run amok, and just how petty and vindictive men can be when their pride is wounded. Based on the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin (and adapted by Nolan), the movie is, above all else, another classic example of science getting so caught up in wondering if something can be done with every possible resource at its disposal that very few actually ask whether it should be done at all.

With a cast that has to reach into the hundreds, including more famous or nearly famous faces than I can remember in any film in recent memory, Oppenheimer is effectively the tale of two men who should have been lifelong friends: J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Nolan mainstay Cillian Murphy) and Lewis Strauss (a truly revelatory Robert Downey Jr.), a founding commissioner of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. For reasons that remain a mystery for most of the movie, Strauss made it his mission to destroy the career and reputation of Oppenheimer many years after the latter led a team of scientists to invent the atomic bomb, the weapon that effectively ended World War II’s war in the Pacific.

The film is actually two films, one showing Oppenheimer’s rise through the scientific community, primarily as a theorist more than doing the actual building to test his theories. At once, he was well-respected and deeply resented for his high opinion of himself. He also dabbled in socialist activities and associated with members of the American communist party in the 1930s, and it was these entanglements that some in the government sought to use against him later in life. Oppenheimer’s story is shown in pieces, beginning with his university years, through the Manhattan project. But we also get glimpses from the late 1950s, during the height of the Red Scare, when Oppenheimer and his closest associates and detractors are being relentlessly interrogated about his loyalty to America and whether or not he fed atomic secrets to the Russians. Meanwhile, Strauss is almost exclusively shown in black-and-white sequences revolving around his confirmation hearing to become Secretary of Commerce under Eisenhower, which should have been a cakewalk for him, were it not for a few pesky facts about his years as AEC head and dealings with Oppenheimer. The systematic takedown of both men is at the heart of this fascinating story, but there’s so much more to walk through, and so many dozens more characters to meet.

In some ways, Oppenheimer might be Nolan’s most personal film, as a director of almost-academic-quality films, many of which feel like they should come with a mandatory discussion group after each screening, especially in his more recent works like Inception, Interstellar, and Tenet. Oppenheimer believed that genius often afforded him the benefit of the doubt or excused bad behavior (he was a flagrant womanizer), and it’s entirely possible that you will leave this three-hour work deeply despising the man, and not just because he gave the world the keys to its own self-destruction. I’m guessing at times, Nolan himself has felt attacked for making overly intellectual and self-indulgent films, but his admirers are fiercely devoted and quite vocal.

Oppenheimer walks us through a couple of the scientist's personal relationships, especially that with his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) and mistress Jean Tarlock (Florence Pugh). Perhaps my favorite supporting character is Gen. Leslie Groves Jr., director of the Manhattan Project (Matt Damon). As soon as Damon enters the film, the tone seems to come to life as the admittedly knowledgeable military man cuts through the dense science. As he did in Air, Damon adds a degree of levity, without resorting to becoming comic relief, and when he breaks a concept down, it sticks in our heads, which is crucial for a story like this that mixes science, morality, and wartime bloodlust.

Other key players include Benny Safdie, David Krumholtz, and Josh Hartnett as key players in both Oppenheimer’s academic life and colleagues whom he brought into the Manhattan Project. Alden Ehrenreich, Scott Grimes, Jason Clarke, Tony Goldwyn, Macon Blair, James D’Arcy, Matthew Modine, Alex Wolff, Rami Malek, Olivia Thirlby, Casey Affleck, and Dane DeHaan all pop in from time to time—sometimes just for one scene, sometimes as glorified background players—to make an impression and sell this story and the lead characters. Standout supporting roles belong to Kenneth Branagh as Danish physicist Niels Bohr; Tom Conti as mentor Albert Einstein; David Dastmalchian as Oppenheimer’s primary accuser; and Gary Oldman as President Harry S. Truman.

Oppenheimer is filmed in a combination of IMAX 65mm and 65mm large-format film photography including, for the first time ever, sections in IMAX black-and-white analogue photography. Visually, the film is beyond reproach, and it oftentimes reminded me of a less chaotic version of Oliver Stone’s JFK, especially when the visuals combine with frequent time jumps and more artistic (and apparently all in-camera) visual effects that let Oppenheimer’s state of mind become represented in his environment. Some of these scenes are downright nightmare fuel, especially after the first atomic bomb test (which happens at almost exactly the two-hour mark), which clearly shakes him to his core.

Almost as soon as the two bombs are dropped on Japan, Oppenheimer is haunted by what he’s done. He’s undeniably proud as well, if only only because he didn’t ignite the atmosphere in the process. But it’s these dueling sentiments that make up the bulk of the third hour of the movie. He doesn’t become an anti-bomb activist, but he does think that using the bomb should have resulted in peace talks with the Russians immediately, rather than further escalation on both sides. He was absolutely right, and nobody wanted to hear it at the time.

Some knowledge of Oppenheimer’s history might help understand some of the nuances of the story the film is trying to tell, but I think the film serves better as a jumping-off point to do additional digging into his troubled later years. I’m particularly interested in the community that was built up at Los Alamos, New Mexico (home of the Manhattan Project), and what day-to-day life must have been like for the families of the scientists who moved out there for years.

Oppenheimer is less about an enigmatic figure and more about a man driven by multiple (and sometimes conflicting) passions. Murphy and Downey are extraordinary in these roles, and Nolan seems focused, connected to the material, and at the top of his game as an artist. It’s sometimes dry, but a film with this much going on needs to be in order to make the complexities easier to follow. And while I’ve accused Nolan of flopping when it comes to directing emotion in some films, here it seems a dominant presence, and it’s handled beautifully. I’m not sure the rest of the world is ready for a three-hour, R-rated, very grown-up film in the heart of the summer, but I sure was.

The film begins playing in theaters on Thursday, July 20, including large-format engagements featuring IMAX and 70mm, including at the Music Box Theatre.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.