By Josh Reilly B. & George Bate
Throughout his illustrious career, director Christopher Nolan has told a variety of different, unique stories, but all are united by his signature style. He’s gone from sci-fi suspense films like Inception, to World War II epics like Dunkirk, and even making a huge impact on the superhero genre with three Batman films along the way, while always retaining a signature style of filmmaking.
Nolan leaves the sci-fi behind and returns with a period piece with his latest film, Oppenheimer, a three-hour suspenseful biopics that tells the story of the real life physicist whose work on the Manhattan Project fundamentally changed society forever and effectively ended the conflict in the pacific. Oppenheimer as a film tells the story of the making of that weapon, including all of the other scientists who had a hand in its creation, but is also a very personal film as it hones in on the title character. J. Robert Oppenheimer as a human being is on full display here, from his relationships with his wife and mistress, his socialist brother and friends, and his overt ties to the Communist Party. Nolan pushes the boundaries of what a biopic can be in this film, choosing to touch only briefly on Oppenheimer’s beginnings as a physicist and ultimately focusing on two major components of his life: his affinity for certain Communist ideas and his work to create the atomic bomb.
The success of this film often depends on star Cillian Murphy, who appears in almost every shot of this film. Murphy, who is a Nolan veteran having had major roles in his Dark Knight trilogy as well Inception, Dunkirk, and more, anchors this film with a captivating lead performance. In some of his other work in Nolan films, Murphy has been a memorable side character or villain, but Oppenheimer gives him the chance to take center stage. In doing so, Cillian Murphy gives the best performance of his career, showing the genius and brilliance of Oppenheimer while also highlighting his vulnerabilities and, later on, the demons that began to haunt him after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The supporting cast is another highlight of this film, with a vast number of recognizable actors appearing in side roles throughout. Matt Damon plays Leslie Groves, a military officer who recruits Oppenheimer to lead the Manhattan Project, and gives a characteristically convincing and engaging performance throughout, as he plays one of Murphy’s character’s few remaining allies come later in the story. Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh also appear as Oppenheimer’s two love interests, with the former being his wife and the latter his long-standing mistress, and they are both equally compelling as two huge parts of the scientist’s personal life. Despite that, both Blunt and Pugh feel a tad underused at times, particularly when it comes to their significance to this story. The focus is on Oppenheimer at all times, but their individual relationships with him and the impact they had on his life could have, at the very least, lended to more impactful roles in this film.
The standout of the supporting cast, however, is arguably the most recognizable actor in the entire film, at least for mainstream audiences. Robert Downey Jr., who famously played Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe from 2008 to 2019, is Lewis Strauss in this film, an American politician who shares some very different viewpoints than Oppenheimer. Strauss is a shifty character, often appearing as an ally but having underlying motives that would suggest he’s an enemy to Cillian Murphy’s scientist, and Downey Jr. does excellently to balance all of that within one performance. This is a performance so far removed from the standard Tony Stark/Iron Man persona that he developed and mastered for over a decade, and brilliantly showcases his range with a unique performance here.
Despite its position as a true story of the life of one of history’s most influential figures, Oppenheimer is far from a regular biopic. Christopher Nolan somehow turns a movie about the life of a scientist into something that has the same sort of intensity and thrilling nature as Inception, Dunkirk, or even his Batman films. In many ways, to turn a film such as this into a huge summer blockbuster is something that only Nolan can do, and he does it incredibly successfully.
Nolan also brings a nonlinear format to the telling of this story, something that he has done in the past with the likes of Tenet and Inception. The creative choice works well again here, allowing the story to progress to some of the most important elements and, in turn, planting the seeds for what is ultimately a huge and gripping final act. Nolan often relies on the audience’s intelligence when making these sorts of stories, particularly when it comes to the decision to hop back and forth to different times in Oppenheimer’s life. No title cards or dates are used to show when the scenes are taking place, and the audience instead is tasked with discovering the place in the timeline based purely on the slightly altered appearances of the characters and the subject of the ongoing conversation. The trust that Nolan places in his audience to follow a complex story such as this, with so many different moving parts and unique characters, pays off immensely in this film.
That being said, Oppenheimer is a whopping three hours, and while the length isn’t really felt at all, the story does continue to drum on a little bit too long. The last 30 minutes or so, which are largely focused on the later years of Oppenheimer’s life and his views on the morals of using atomic weapons, become a little bit too repetitive at times. It feels as if the point has already been made, and the climax has already been shown with the detonation of the bomb and the political and social aftermath of its usage, so while the length is certainly not an issue by any means, the film had appeared to already have made its message clear earlier.
Oppenheimer is the latest masterpiece from Christopher Nolan, and is told in a way that only he could. This is an exciting summer blockbuster, with Nolan bringing his trademark intensity and thrills throughout, both of which are sure to please audiences. Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. give excellent performances in this film, and both are arguably early Oscar contenders at next year’s Academy Awards. Despite becoming too repetitive towards the end, Oppenheimer is yet another suspenseful and entertaining film that is bound to linger with audiences for a long time to come.
See how Oppenheimer compares to Christopher Nolan’s other films in our ranking of Nolan’s movies from worst to best.