Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, who'll be the first ones who got to go? Without a doubt, those who say the movie ''blew them away'' or something in it was ''bombastic'' in their social media posts, Letterboxd reviews or anywhere else. That's because we're discussing Oppenheimer, writer-director Christopher Nolan's epic biographical thriller, based on Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's book 'American Prometheus', about the man who led the production of the first atomic bombs.
Cillian Murphy plays the eponymous J. Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist whom we follow initially from his academic life to him spearheading the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos during World War II where a community of scientists research and develop nuclear weapons for the U.S. Army under the watchful eye of general Leslie Groves (Matt Damon). In other timelines, we also see Oppenheimer in a security hearing after the war and Atomic Energy Commission's chairman and Oppenheimer's former associate Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) at a Senate hearing. Emily Blunt plays Oppenheimer's wife Kitty, Florence Pugh his lover and a communist party member Jean Tatlock while actors such as Benny Safdie, Tom Conti, Rami Malek, Olivia Thirlby and Josh Hartnett appear as other notable scientists.
It's quite honestly a daunting task to talk about the film after having experienced its intense storytelling at breakneck pace for three hours but that is also a big reason why it ends up being successful, especially in its respective genre in which it is almost an anomaly. Nolan's writing is challenging in an exciting way and editor Jennifer Lame expertly oversees changes of perspective or time that make it so challenging. In general terms, Lame and Nolan treat the first hour mostly as a montage, second hour as a classic thriller with a ''time bomb'' as a motivating factor and the third hour is relentlessly unpacking everything that came before. It demands your attention and, yes, it earns your attention which is why it's very satisfying.
If there are flaws still in Nolan's approach, it is in what that montage section in the beginning contains. Composer Ludwig Göransson's score is both beautiful and horrifying, classical yet experimental with synths that often take over completely, but Nolan and his sound mixers are perhaps a bit too in love with themselves to notice that it can be overbearing when it doesn't need to be as it drowns out great dialogue and doesn't let resonant lines linger properly. Göransson's music is remarkable but it shouldn't be treated as the main character.
Speaking of main characters, the real star of the show is perhaps the cast led by the heavy hitters. Nolan has often managed to get one or two standout performances in his earlier work but here the actors are just firing on all cylinders. While Murphy has become a household name thanks to his recent TV work, this is an entirely new challenge and one which he fully owns. With perfect control in DoP Hoyte van Hoytema's closeups and always thinking ahead, it's a monumental performance by him in the lead role, finely expressing a sense of importance, uncertainty and curiosity, sometimes even all at once. Downey also rises to the occasion with his excellent work in the final hour while Blunt and Safdie are able to make their smaller moments matter greatly as well.
So what does it all create in the end? It might be a cheat to say that half of the impact will be felt afterwards but the themes Nolan's script is tackling happen to be that vital. How much responsibility does a creator carry for their creation or how much did their own fears about persecution justify its existence? How can you claim to protect humanity if you're willing to do something so inhumane? You certainly think about the evil that humans are capable of, the importance of scientific opinions and how they can be ignored systemically when it's easier to be distracted. When does it all end? Nolan takes his virtuosity of blockbuster filmmaking and combines it with sincere interest in human conflicts. Oppenheimer is a character study that feels as important as the influence he had and continues to have, for better or worse.
Smileys: Performance by a cast, characterisation, editing, score, screenplay
Frowneys: Minor sound mixing flaws
Have an Oppen mind.