VERDICT: Writer-director Christopher Nolan has a stronger handle on the creation of the atomic bomb than on the inner life of the tortured genius behind that creation.
By Alonso Duralde, July 19, 2023
Fittingly, for a film about a man who called the first nuclear-bomb test “Trinity,” Oppenheimer is essentially three intertwined movies:
One concerns the academic career and love life of young J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), another recounts Oppenheimer leading the Manhattan Project as it invented the atomic bomb, and a third examines Cold War–era attempts to discredit Oppenheimer when he began warning American society about the risks of escalating nuclear brinksmanship against the Soviet Union.
Of the three, only the bomb-crafting segment of Oppenheimer truly achieves greatness. Perhaps that’s because writer-director Christopher Nolan is more interested in process than he is in human beings. Or maybe it’s because that sequence plays into his gifts as a craftsman of cerebral popcorn movies; while the rest of the film involves scientists writing on chalkboards or bureaucrats holding hearings, the Los Alamos material crackles like a heist film.
The team is put together (although in this case, they’re technically all the Explosives Expert), there’s resistance from authority figures (Matt Damon offers both wit and bluster as the no-nonsense General Leslie Groves), and everyone’s up against the ticking clock of the forthcoming Potsdam Conference.
The early scenes of Oppenheimer as a student present him in two states of ocular moodiness — staring wide-eyed into space or closing them with great tension — that suggest that he’s not contemplating the particles of the universe or the ripples of rain on water or waves upon the surface of the sun. His most recurrent vision, involving points of light on a solid background, suggests the subtly blurry, floating orbs of the Focus Features intro.
Like its protagonist, Oppenheimer is a work in constant conflict with itself, with most of its problems rooted in Nolan’s screenplay. Writing dialogue that sounds like dialogue requires perfect pitch, but it’s not impossible; screenwriters from Joseph L. Mankiewicz to Wes Anderson, at their best, know how to provide a constant flow of witty, epigrammatic bon mots that are too sculpted for everyday conversation but sing on the screen.
Here, characters speak on billboards to one another, proclaiming their intentions and stating their theses in a way that rarely ever resembles human behavior, and the actors do their best to make it sound like something any natural person might ever have said. Damon probably fares best with Nolan’s densely-packed declarations, and Alden Ehrenreich deserves some kind of prize for carving a flesh-and-blood character out of a political flunky who exists only to swap exposition with Robert Downey Jr.’s Lewis Strauss, a one-time colleague of Oppenheimer’s.
Did Oppenheimer tell a colleague, years before the creation of the Los Alamos base, that his childhood dream was to combine physics and New Mexico? Maybe, but as a line of dialogue, it lands hard. And you don’t have to be Susan Sontag to find a camp at the moment when Nolan chooses to deliver Oppenheimer’s famous quotation of the Bhagavad Gita, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” while the scientist is having sex with his radical-Communist girlfriend Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh).
Thankfully, Murphy’s physiognomy gives Hoyte Van Hoytema’s camera plenty of angles to explore when digging into the character in ways that don’t require dialogue; the actor does far better by the writer than vice versa. But even in a sharply written, powerfully acted scene like Emily Blunt’s Kitty Oppenheimer standing up to her husband’s political opponents, Nolan allows Ludwig Göransson’s score to overwhelm the moment and steal focus. (That score also functions best during those Manhattan Project scenes.)
Oppenheimer boasts an exceptional ensemble, but if anything, the movie is overcast. Every time a new character pops up, often for just a scene or two, it’s easy to be pulled out of the story for a moment because, Oh look! It’s Casey Affleck! or Benny Safdie or Gary Oldman or Rami Malek or David Krumholz or James Remar or Olivia Thirlby or Tony Goldwyn or David Dasmalchian or Dane DeHaan or James Urbaniak. Anyone playing Character Actor Bingo will be blacking out their card by the middle of hour two.
With all of its quick cuts and time-hopping, Oppenheimer behaves like a film worried it won’t have the space to fit everything it wants to say and do into three hours. Then it exhausts its welcome in the service of reiterating points. Then it delivers lectures in case you missed the earlier rounds. It knows how to blow up the world but doesn’t know when to quit.