We go into every Christopher Nolan movie expecting a major set piece that defines “cinema.” The truck flip in The Dark Knight and the rotating hallway in Inception come to mind. In Oppenheimer, the defining set piece is an explosion. This sounds straightforward for Nolan, especially since we’ve seen so many explosions in movies that we’re desensitized to them. This is the first explosion in a long time, though, where we feel the gravitas. Part of that’s because Nolan executes it practically. The real reason, though, is that we sense another explosion brewing within our titular character. After the explosion comes the aftershock, which is where the real meat of this story lies.
Nolan regular Cillian Murphy has given one riveting performance after another, but he’s struggled to shake his underappreciated status. In that sense, he’s the perfect candidate to play J. Robert Oppenheimer. Although Oppenheimer is a brilliant theoretical physicist, few consider him qualified to oversee the lab on a program that’ll come to be known as the Manhattan Project. That’s largely why General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) places his faith in Oppenheimer. While the ambitious Oppenheimer is determined to make a name for himself, his Jewish heritage gives him a personal stake in bringing down Hitler. Of course, the atomic bomb is ultimately dropped in Japan.
Even when the Führer is out of the picture, Oppenheimer feels the bomb must be completed. This is primarily to ensure America’s victory, but the project also might be feeding into Oppenheimer’s ego. He needs the world to see what he’s accomplished. It isn’t until the bomb is dropped, however, that he begins to grasp the full impact. If Oppenheimer could rewrite history, chances are he’d still probably make the bomb. Yet, there will always be a part of him that looks back with uncertainty. Whether or not he made the right choice, Oppenheimer would likely attest that the bomb shouldn’t be a last resort, not the new norm.
Oppenheimer is Nolan’s most dialogue-heavy film with the characters spouting scientific jargon a mile a minute. While this is interesting, the film would essentially be a college lecture if we didn’t feel the human conflict. Murphy gets this across not through Nolan’s tech talk, but through the emotional turmoil he keeps beneath the surface. A more conventional movie would end with Oppenheimer delivering the bomb, ending a war, and being hailed as an American hero. This film keeps going, though, as Oppenheimer comes to grips with his creation. Although we see one crucial explosion, Nolan wisely avoids showing what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer can still envision the horrific imagery, however. As World War II ends, Oppenheimer goes to war with himself. This character study is what sticks with us, almost making the explosion seem like an afterthought.
The film is just as much a courtroom drama with Oppenheimer’s communist ties coming back to haunt him during the Red Scare. Leading the vendetta against him is Lewis Strauss, played by Robert Downey Jr. in a Best Supporting Actor caliber performance. Oppenheimer is resolute about fighting the accusations against him, although he knows the system is rigged. In that sense, Oppenheimer might welcome the punishment as a form of karma. Nolan doesn’t glamorize Oppenheimer as an unsung hero, but he doesn’t glorify him as a martyr either. He’s just a man who expertly executed the job he was enlisted for and isn’t sure how to feel about it.
Along with Murphy and Downey Jr., Nolan enlists a revolving door of character actors, Oscar winners, and Oscar-winning character actors. Florence Pugh is a standout as Jean Tatlock, who awakens Oppenheimer politically and sexually. Emily Blunt is equally powerful as Kitty Oppenheimer, his faithful yet outspoken wife. On a technical level, Oppenheimer is draped in everything we’ve come to associate with Nolan: arresting cinematography, sound design that hits in all the right places, and a commanding musical score from Ludwig Göransson. Oppenheimer may very well be Nolan’s masterpiece. That’s not to say it’s his best film. After all, this guy also made The Dark Knight, Inception, and Memento. Thematically and technically, though, it’s as if Nolan is a bomb that’s igniting like never before, revealing the scope of his genius.