Christopher Nolan has always been able to hook his audiences in his opening scenes. From the heist of “The Dark Knight” to the reversing footage in “Memento” to the surreal teaser of “Inception,” Nolan immerses his audience into these worlds with slow-burn openers. And despite knowing this, I was still impressed with how Nolan decided to open “Oppenheimer.” As soon as I saw the text, “Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and gave it to Man. For this, he was tied to a rock and tortured for eternity,” I realized that this movie would be one of the best character dramas I would ever see.
“Oppenheimer” looks at Julius Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) not just as a brilliant theoretical physicist but also as an egotistical womanizer who sought political power during the rise of the Cold War. Starting with Oppenheimer as a homesick student at Cambridge, we see him as the leading figure of theoretical physics in America while at UC Berkeley, big enough to be chosen to lead the Manhattan Project for the U.S. Government. As Oppenheimer leads many scientists and military officers in the town of Los Alamos, he then realizes the scale of destruction that his scientific discovery will incur — first on a governmental scale and then suddenly and disturbingly posing a constant threat to humankind at large.
Out of anticipation for the film, I have learned that the number of cinemas that could project IMAX 70mm Film has been slowly dwindling for many years. Now, there are only 19 theaters in America that project in this massive format, which makes these screenings difficult to seek out. But with the convenience of living in NYC, the home city of AMC Lincoln Square 13 (the only theater with IMAX 70mm screenings in all of New York State), I was able to buy my IMAX ticket a week in advance and watch Nolan’s true magnum opus in glorious detail.
Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema has done it once again. His utilization of IMAX 70mm is never wasted, as he can take in so much color and space that makes every shot uniquely exquisite. Despite the film not being an action-packed experience that could warrant IMAX (like “The Dark Knight” or “Dunkirk”), Hoytema uses his carefully crafted shots to make the film (full of action-packed dialogue) as bombastic and spectacular as any action scene in Nolan’s other films. And even then, the entire Trinity Test sequence is one of the most fantastic action setpieces of 21st-century cinema; the scene carries so much tension that it could make you anxious as you watch.
Like everyone else, I am finally glad that Cillian Murphy has the protagonist role in one of Christopher Nolan’s works. Murphy holds his own, playing Oppenheimer in various forms. Murphy’s charisma helps him be an extroverted womanizer and persuades others to follow him to the desert and change history. In Lewis Strauss’s (Robert Downey Jr.) portions of the film, he also pulls off playing the stoic man who staves off the controversies surrounding the Soviets having their atom bomb or Oppenheimer’s ties with communists.
As the film’s stakes increase, Murphy expresses the tortured soul that hides behind his persona and public image. As a brilliant theoretical physicist, his talents are similar to how Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) describes them to Oppenheimer. Bohr compares understanding physics theory to a great musician who can hear music just by reading a score. As Oppenheimer goes further into the Manhattan Project, you can see that he mentally tries to stave off the destruction his creation will cause. Cillian Murphy is required to win an Oscar for Best Actor because his performance is one I’ll think about for years to come.
Many of the supporting leads are also great in their own right. It’s refreshing to see Robert Downey Jr. continue to spread his acting range after being typecast as the snarky, suave lead due to his overlong stint as Tony Stark. But now, as Acting U.S. Secretary Lewis Strauss, Downey perfectly encapsulates a man who knows more than he lets on. As Strauss tries to advance to cabinet member of the Eisenhower Administration, Downey subtly exudes his rage and aggression for Oppenheimer, as the physicist upstages his chances for more power, even when he’s not directly involved in the Strauss hearings. Matt Damon plays an excellent part in General Leslie Groves, an officer who is more empathetic towards Oppenheimer than most people in the film but does not always trust where Oppenheimer leads him.
Another underrated performance that I found memorable is from none other than Jason Clarke. Clarke is no stranger to historical drama, having played protagonist Ted Kennedy in the semi-biographical and controversial “Chappaquiddick” in 2017. However, in his portrayal of Councilman Robert Robb, he becomes one of the most vicious characters I have seen this year. Clarke spends most of the film discussing security clearance with this disgusted scowl towards Oppenheimer. Whenever he asks a question or chimes in on the hearing, you can see how Robb is willing to bring up any humiliating facts about Oppenheimer just to feel more dominant to him, even if the comments are unnecessary. In a climactic scene, Robb’s anger reaches a boiling point, and his highly aggressive interrogation almost brings Oppenheimer to a breaking point.
I’ve been constantly hearing critiques regarding the editing of the film. Many claim that Nolan and editor Jennifer Lame included too many cuts, making the viewing experience ‘jarring.’ But when you understand the story’s formatting, you realize this is a reasonable artistic decision. Oppenheimer’s story is not recounted like a Scorsese film, where characters can confess their pasts in excruciating detail without guilt.
Bureaucrats explicitly interrogate Oppenheimer’s past, whether from the man himself or Lewis Strauss’ hearing. These interrogations do not allow scenes to be shown in detail or have enough time for us to understand Oppenheimer at that moment. The stage for this storytelling can only condense portions of his life to significant moments, which are the points when people challenge Oppenheimer’s character. It isn’t until the film’s final moments, once we are familiar with Oppenheimer that he feels cornered by the pressure that has been bearing down on him for years.
I’d also like to make a bet here. I will not see a movie this year that is better than this fantastic story that Nolan was able to tell. This film is the default decision for what I would like to see win awards like Best Actor (Murphy), Best Supporting Actor (Downey Jr.), Best Director (Nolan), Best Cinematography (Hoytema), Best Editing (Lame), and Best Picture.
“Oppenheimer” is in theaters now. It will also be screened at Hoyt Auditorium on 9/22.