Oppenheimer is Writer/Director Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious film yet. It’s also his most straightforward in years. A biopic about the man credited as the father of the atomic bomb is hardly as mind-bending as Inception or Tenet, nor is it as action-packed as The Dark Knight. But it is every bit as explosive, no pun intended.
Grounded and centred by a phenomenal performance by Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer is an intricately woven, complex piece of cinema that stays with the audience long after the credits roll. Nolan plays with the established formula of the biopic refusing to conform and instead producing something strange and wonderful.
Visually outstanding and with a tremendous score to match, Oppenheimer is a film that will leave you both shocked and breathlessly in wonder.
Oppenheimer expects and demands a lot of its audience. The first third speeds through so much material introduces so many characters and establishes so much that it’s easy to become lost and confused. The multiple timelines and scenes shot in black and white do nothing to help an audience member find their footing but this is the point. This early section focuses on Oppenheimer’s life before the Manhattan Project; his studies, his women and his politics.
He’s finding himself amongst a sea of opportunities and is being pulled in an infinite number of directions. He barely has time to stop and eat and Nolan’s pacing and structure of the early parts of the film are designed to throw the audience off kilter. By the time we’re able to pause for a breath, the Manhattan Project is in full swing. It’s here that we spend the largest portion of the film and where things calm down, at least for Oppenheimer.
As Oppenheimer comes into himself, Nolan slows down to focus on the creation of the world’s first atomic bombs and the combination of military, science and politics that led there. Despite telling the story of the creation of man’s most destructive weapons Nolan creates a sense of calm and an even keel throughout the second act. Murphy’s portrayal of Oppenheimer becomes more self-assured, more confident and more in charge. It’s the literal calm before the storm.
Finally, once Trinity has been tested and Japan has faced the horror of two atomic bombings, the film’s third act and coda deal with the aftermath of what’s come before; the political machinations used against Oppenheimer and the fallout from the creation of these devices.
There is almost too much movie in Oppenheimer as it weaves a tale that could have been four separate films. Part biopic, part political thriller, part war film and part romance, Oppenheimer sometimes groans under the weight of its ambitions. It often feels as though everything is just about to go off the rails and the film is going to lose its grasp on the material, but it manages to remain upright. This again, feels like a deliberate choice by Nolan as it mirrors Oppenheimer’s journey of trying to navigate an impossible number of stakeholders and responsibilities.
Shooting on IMAX gives the film a gigantic sense of scale which makes for some breathtaking shots and scenery. There are times when the scale of IMAX causes Oppenheimer to feel imposing which is fitting, given the subject matter and story being told.
Performances are spectacular across the board with special mention having to be made of Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr and Florence Pugh. However, it is Murphy who holds everything together and his performance casts Oppenheimer as an almost prophetic, otherworldly figure. Someone not of the same space and time as the rest of us. He sees things beyond normal human sight and he knows things that way heavily on him, especially after the creation of the bomb.
Oppenheimer is Nolan at his most confident, doing away with familiar structure and form to deliver something enormous, thunderous and terrifying. Oppenheimer explores radical ideas and the notion of irrevocably changing something, yourself or the world. Oppenheimer did all three and, if the film is to be believed, wondered if he had destroyed the world in the process of saving it.
Oppenheimer is a true spectacle and one which should be seen on the largest screen possible.
Leo Stevenson attended a screening of Oppenheimer as a guest of Universal Pictures Australia.