Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr are extraordinary in Christopher Nolan's striking atomic-bomb thriller.
July 20, 2023
Cast Cillian Murphy and a filmmaker falls in love. Danny Boyle did with 28 Days Later and Sunshine, then Christopher Nolan followed with Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception and Dunkirk. There's an arresting, haunting, seeps-under-your-skin soulfulness about the Irish actor, never more so than when he was wandering solo through the empty zombie-ravaged streets in his big-screen big break, then hurtling towards the sun in an underrated sci-fi gem, both for Boyle, and now playing "the father of atomic bomb" in Nolan's epic biopic Oppenheimer. Flirting with the end of the world, or just one person's end, clearly suits Murphy. Here he is in a mind-blower as the destroyer of worlds — almost, perhaps actually — and so much of this can't-look-away three-hour stunner dwells in his expressive eyes. As J Robert Oppenheimer, those peepers see purpose and possibility. They spot quantum mechanics' promise, and the whole universe lurking within that branch of physics. They ultimately spy the consequences, too, of bringing the Manhattan Project successfully to fruition during World War II.
Dr Strangelove's full title could never apply to Oppenheimer, nor to its eponymous figure; neither learn to stop worrying and love the bomb. The theoretical physicist responsible for the creation of nuclear weapons did enjoy building it in Nolan's account, Murphy's telltale eyes gleaming as Oppy watches research become reality — but then darkening as he gleans what that reality means. Directing, writing and adapting the 2005 biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin, Nolan charts the before and after. He probes the fission and fusion of the situation in intercut parts, the first in colour, the second in black and white. In the former, all paths lead to the history-changing Trinity test on July 16, 1945 in the New Mexico desert. In the latter, a mushroom cloud balloons through Oppenheimer's life as he perceives what the gadget, as it's called in its development stages, has unleashed.
Pre-Los Alamos Oppenheimer is all nervy spark, whether he's excited about a Cambridge lecture by Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh, Death on the Nile), meeting other great minds in his field around Europe, taking his learnings home from to start the US' first quantum mechanics class, or cultivating what'll later be disparaged by a security clearance-decreeing Atomic Energy Commission panel as a far leftwing mindset. He's electric when an animated ideological chat with Communist Party member Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh, The Wonder) leads to slipping between the sheets for a tumultuous affair. When he meets botanist and biologist Kitty (Emily Blunt, The English) in the smoothest of sexual tension-dripping conversations, his inertia gets her answering "not very" when he asks if she's married. Determination mingles in, too, when Lieutenant General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon, Air) thunders into his classroom on a recruitment mission for top-secret work in a race to beat the Nazis. And, it lingers as the ball is put in motion, then keeps rolling, to construct the most fateful ball of them all.
Post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki Oppenheimer is solidified in his certainty that his big bang, then the others that America's military detonated swiftly in Japan once they knew it worked, is on the wrong side of history. He's fragmented, though, by the response to his horror — including the McCarthy-esque committee mercilessly scrutinising him, his colleagues and others closet to him, while deciding whether they'll still give him access. Amid the political fallout for Oppenheimer's advocacy for scaling back afterwards, AEC commissioner Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr, Dolittle) is weaved in, also answering dissecting questions. Oppenheimer is a talky film, sound and fury echoing as heatedly in its words as when blazing light fills the screen. Both the discussions-slash-interrogations and the incendiary moment that forever altered all incendiary moments are impeccably, immaculately, thrillingly and viscerally staged.
Nolan identifies chain reactions, and creates them. As he slams the movie's two parts together with his Tenet editor Jennifer Lane's exacting splicing — also letting the contrasting segments lensed so meticulously by Oscar-nominated Dunkirk cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema fling closer and bounce apart, and linking everything with Black Panther Oscar-winner Ludwig Göransson's evocative and relentless score — he crafts his most complex and complicated film yet. His subject demands it. Oppenheimer follows, digs into memory and can't sleep with what's happened. It notices what grows in darkness, shifts reality, reaches for the cosmic and hops through time, too, all in its own ways. It plays like a culmination of Nolan's work as a result — it's certainly made like exactly that — as its namesake tries "not to set the sky on fire", as Groves tells him, then attempts to kill the terrible threat of burning skies as a power-boosting military tactic.
If someone told Nolan not to set the screen alight and aglow with his 12th feature in 25 years, and his second about World War II in six, he didn't listen — be it with his resonant ideas, his execution or his stars. He paints a fiery portrait of America, especially in monochrome. He unpacks the lengths that humanity will go to to gain control and garner recognition, and the grave costs. He fires moments at the screen that just keep expanding in impact, and combining like Dunkirk's onslaught from land, air and sea. An early gripping scene involving Oppenheimer as a student, an apple and cyanide is one. So is the immediate expectation to lead the cheering after the Trinity test, just as the full meaning of what's occurred dawns, in a sequence that uses dissonant sound to immersive and galvanising effect. And, piercing too is the rat-tat-tat of the interrogation dialogue.
Murphy is spectacular, and has never been better as Nolan stares so intimately and contemplatively at his revealing face. How joyous it is to see Downey Jr, also never better, actually act again — his astounding, awards-destined performance is meaty, mesmerising, and something that's been sorely missed. Oppenheimer's is an explosive cast, also spanning Blunt at her steeliest; pivotal contributions by Josh Hartnett (Black Mirror), Benny Safdie (Stars at Noon) and David Krumholtz (White House Plumbers) as fellow scientists; and the influential Jason Clarke (Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty), Macon Blair (Reservation Dogs), Dane DeHaan (The Staircase) and Alden Ehrenreich (Cocaine Bear) among the lawyers, military and political aides. Present, too, each in small but significant parts: three consecutive 2017–19 Best Actor Academy Award-winners in Manchester by the Sea's Casey Affleck, Darkest Hour's Gary Oldman and Bohemian Rhapsody's Rami Malek. Nolan deploys them all in a film that bellows, billows and blasts. Watching, and plunging into Oppenheimer's mind, isn't a passive experience.
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