Who would have guessed the perfect way to frame the tale of the man credited with designing the world’s first nuclear weapons, and one of the most catastrophic, world-changing events in human history, was a courtroom drama? Director Chris Nolan swapped explosions for exposition, and fireworks for the pointed words and glasses thrown during tense conversations, in order to give us “Oppenheimer.” Viewers will quickly learn this is not a movie about a bomb, but about a man — and the portrayal truly was perfect.
And if Nolan was truly uniquely capable in accomplishing putting such a character to film, then perhaps only one man was equally up to the task of starring in it. When the director finished his script for the movie, he called the only person he could envision donning the now iconic porkpie — Cillian Murphy. Murphy, upon reading the script, said that it was the best he had ever read, fastening the two together in the quest to tell the story of a man so ambitious, regretful and brilliant.
I saw this film in a packed theater on night one, the room filled to capacity with people enraptured for three hours. No, the Regal in Times Square does not have recliner seats, but that was likely for the best, because I would have been on the edge of it the entire time. The movie begins with an intensity that not only is unrelenting, but stubbornly rises throughout the course of the film. Even as a middle-third event occurs which would have — in almost any other movie — signaled the end of our distress and an incoming denouement, Nolan ramped up the suspense even further.
Like one particularly brilliant scene involving the bomb’s test, we are continually left in a state of tension, dreading what may occur next, but unable to look away even for a second lest we abandon the plight of our new friend, J. Robert Oppenheimer, “father of the atomic bomb.” Scenes of a simple interrogation, or conversation between husband and wife, are just as intense as those involving usage of the weapon in question.
While being a word thrown around far too often in critique, Murphy’s performance is as honest as it gets. While Nolan is a decidedly anti-nuclear war figure, his work does not beg our sympathy for the leading persona. And yet we all give it simply off the strength of his script, and Murphy’s acting. It almost feels odd to refer to the star as his real family name, because we entirely lose him to the character, which is one of the most consistent portrayals I have ever seen. No action taken or word said deviated from the persona in front of us. Viewers are bereft to find even an instant in which Murphy was not fully, and totally, Oppenheimer.
In this sense, “Oppenheimer” commits itself to a largely unrivaled quality of storytelling, one that elicits a connection to our character, in spite of the flaws that we perceive, and that he himself would be the first to cite. And while no one could have been explored quite as deeply as our titular one, every supporting character carries with them motivations that feel fitting and personas that feel fleshed out. One in particular, Robert Downey Jr.’s character, Lewis Strauss, presents to the audience every bit of his complex relationship with Oppenheimer, allowing us to comprehend beyond a shade of a doubt why he did what he did.
In other supporting roles, Matt Damon plays the hardened companion, Emily Blunt the principled wife and Florence Pugh the longing girlfriend, to great success.
While of course Nolan’s lack of CGI-usage was never a detriment to the film, it conversely proved to be a real boon. Shots of the New Mexico mesa are stunning, cut with stark, black and white images of scenes in the future. Nolan takes us through the film’s various settings largely through color and visuals, with the mood and atmosphere in each shifting so dramatically, and yet so smoothly, largely due to incredible editing by Jennifer Lame.
As for the film’s run time, three hours truly felt like 30 minutes, and I was left without a single scene, nor indeed a moment, that I felt warranted leaving on the cutting room floor. Oppenheimer did not jog to its three hour finish line, but sprinted the length of it.
Oppenheimer was Nolan’s first foray into the historical biopic genre, and the film succeeds in large part due to the director remaining true to his signature style. The dialogue in the film is fantastic and serves as the primary vehicle to drive the plot forward. Whether it be snappy remarks between Oppenheimer to Damon’s Groves demanding his security clearance so he could “perform this miracle for [him],” the strained conversations between Kitty and Robert over her disagreement with his handling of incredibly disrespectful treatment or the trial by fire championed by Roger Rob against Oppenheimer, every word carried with it great significance to the whole, seemingly a very decidedly non-compartmentalized script. It is little wonder why Murphy was so exceedingly glowing about its quality.
Of course, the script is only rendered more striking as complemented by a brilliant musical score, ever the stalwart of a Nolan flick. Ludwig Gonarsson’s compositions delicately drape over soft, quiet scenes of conversation, thunderously echo in ones of great anxiety and always provide the perfect emotional backdrop for moments of great intensity.
As the movie winds its way between different times and places towards its conclusion, I wondered how Nolan would leave us. Up until this point, Nolan had deftly avoided any potential pitfalls for his biopic. Going in, I was incredibly interested to see how he would handle the infamous “now I am become death, destroyer of worlds,” which I believe was handled as well and as powerfully, as could have been done. “Oppenheimer” avoided becoming a staid military war movie, or over-the-top nuclear weapon thriller, or a tepid political drama in favor of carving its own path in a cinematic way only someone with the trailblazing talent of Nolan’s could.
Now it was just that pesky ending scene I was so intrigued by. And all we received was the culmination of a movie’s length question, and some of the most effective visual acting I have ever seen. To say “Oppenherimer” does not end with a bang but with a whimper would be a somewhat accurate statement, in that its ending was fittingly stoic, poignant and truly haunting in a way very few films have ever left me feeling.
Being released from the whirlwind three hours after our very first shot of a pensive Cillian Murphy, I felt like I had just witnessed something truly awesome in every sense of the word. Here we have received a movie so meticulously crafted, so razor focused on its own direction, the likes of which we very rarely have the privilege of seeing. And what’s more, a return to blockbuster cinema of the highest quality and commitment, stories that pack theaters and fill ticket lines, eroding their way into everyday culture so subtly that we don’t even notice it. And yet, all of a sudden we find ourselves asking our coworkers, friends and loved ones, “when are you seeing it?,” yearning to once again bask in the collective admiration of storytelling.
A movie that without exaggeration could save cinemas around the country, it feels only fitting to have been done with “Oppenheimer”: championed by a director, cast and crew that seemed to somehow care about the telling of its tale just as much as the audience did to hear it.
Edited by: James Sutton