By Santiago Brion | August 21, 2023
“Oppenheimer” is the new movie from acclaimed director Christopher Nolan who has made iconic movies such as The Dark Knight, Inception, and Interstellar. Following Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, one of the first theatrical movies that came out during COVID-19, Nolan directed his next feature film, “Oppenheimer,” which is the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist who invented the atomic bomb, which was used by the United States to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II. Oppenheimer is told in three separate timelines in a non-linear fashion and is also split further into two separate timelines, one in color and another in black & white.
The film starts with two separate flash-forwards, one in color in which Oppenheimer recounts his story to a committee assigned to renew his security clearance. The other is in black and white with the perspective of a scummy politician, Lewis Strauss, the former Secretary of Commerce, and one of the original members of the Atomic Energy Commission, whose commission hearing recounts his interactions with Oppenheimer.
In color, we see Oppenheimer’s origin of becoming a quantum physicist. Starting from his time in college where he discovers the subject and meets the most important scientists in the world, to being a young professor at Princeton University and heading the Manhattan Project.
In black and white, we see how Strauss makes Oppenheimer’s life a living hell after World War II, in which he reveals his communist practices to the United States Commerce Committee, thus losing Oppenheimer’s security clearance in the process. The dynamic and rivalry between Oppenheimer and Strauss is one of the highlights of this three-hour historical epic, thanks to the performances from both Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr.. The latter perfectly captures the sniving and scheming that is now in the Oscar conversation for a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
The black and white sequences symbolize Strauss's absolute morality, Strauss's beliefs are the objective truth, like a physicist fusing atoms, he bends the truth to his will. The truth is his belief that Oppenheimer was a communist by framing him out of spite due to his humiliating comments on Strauss's proposal to export isotopes to Norway.
Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer proves that he is the leading man for a mainstream movie, playing a complicated and sophisticated figure with a fragile ego who pioneered quantum mechanics for better or worse. His performance puts you on the edge of your seat due to his severe mental state on how his genius somehow caused a dark period in human history.
One of the most terrifying and memorable moments, and one of my favorite scenes of the movie, is a scene where Oppenheimer stands in front of a crowd of people, announcing that the bomb has been dropped and that the war is over. As the crowd cheers and screams, he’s overwhelmed by the blood-curdling sounds of people celebrating the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. Underneath Oppenheimer’s foot is a charred corpse that he unknowingly steps on and crushes, signifying the wall separating Oppenheimer’s morality and contradiction on the creation of the atomic bomb, leading to the consequences of his actions like his security clearance being revoked.
Another moment that says a lot about Oppenheimer is when he injects cyanide into his professor’s apple out of spite just because he humiliated him in front of the whole class. It’s not until one of his idol scientists has the apple in his hand that Oppenheimer then takes it. Oppenheimer was a man with a brilliant mind but was consumed by his own ego which allows him to do heinous things to satisfy himself.
Most of the actors from this stacked cast were also great including Ben Safdie as Edward Teller, who spoke in a perfect Ukrainian accent and sweats up a storm, Josh Hartnett as Ernest Lawrence who is on the comeback train, and Emily Blunt who plays Kitty Oppenheimer, the main protagonist’s wife.
Nolan’s direction is brimming with style which includes conversations that feel like action scenes, unconventional narratives, sound effects that will make your head shake, and a banging score. The score from Ludwig Goransson is incredible with “Can You Hear the Music” being the most streamed, and is compared to how art and science collide and start a chain reaction. The cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema is also a highlight, showing the grand scope of the nuclear testing site, close-ups of Oppenheimer that feel like the walls are closing in on him, and the immense human guilt that he feels.
Oppenheimer is an engaging and albeit patient character study of a scientist caught in the midst of his ambition that led to the deaths of thousands. The film itself says a lot about the government that we used to put our faith and trust in being just as bad as the Axis powers that we have sworn to oppose. The performances, direction, cinematography, themes, and score are all that make Oppenheimer a masterpiece.