Christopher Nolan’s cinema is one of dualities: between knowledge and ignorance (Memento); seeing and sightlessness (Insomnia); good and evil (The Dark Knight); illusion and authenticity (The Prestige); dreaming and waking (Inception); courage and cowardice (Dunkirk); and the past and the present (Tenet). In that regard, Oppenheimer—a film of endless contrasts and contradictions—is the fullest expression of the writer/director’s artistry to date. Propelled by the inexorable march of progress and imagination and electrified by the terrible thrill of theories, dreams, and miracles realized in all their devastating glory, it’s a divided epic of awe and horror, fission and fusion. It’s simultaneously a unified portrait of a conflicted man and a singular achievement for Hollywood’s reigning blockbuster auteur.
Adapted from Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 biography American Prometheus, Oppenheimer (July 21, in theaters) begins with images of raindrops falling on a pond’s surface and fiery detonations in the void—the first of innumerable opposing visions that are in unlikely harmony, or at least uneasy coexistence, in Nolan’s masterpiece. An individual of myriad paradoxes, Cillian Murphy’s J. Robert Oppenheimer is a scientist (and the father of theoretical physics in the United States) who adores art and culture; a towering intellectual who’s incompetent in the laboratory; an arrogant leader who’s unwilling to fight; a devoted lover and partner who’s habitually unfaithful; and the architect of modern annihilation who wants to foster global peace. When, early in his academic career, he’s drawn to quantum physics, because it suggests that the impossible—namely, that light is both a wave and a particle—is true, it’s a telling snapshot of his inherent attraction to the irreconcilable.
As with so much of Nolan’s prior work, Oppenheimer is chronologically fractured, recounting its tale from two perspectives: that of Oppenheimer, in color, and of Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), in black-and-white. In accordance with that structure, the film casts its dual strands as flashbacks told by these characters during, respectively, the secret, Red Scare-driven 1954 hearing that cost Oppenheimer his security clearance and the 1959 Senate hearing that denied Strauss the Secretary of Commerce position he coveted. Throughout, Nolan narratively and formally intertwines Oppenheimer's and Strauss’ fates, juxtaposing them in order to highlight the story’s fundamental honesty and duplicity—what with its clandestine military operation in the Los Alamos desert, pervasive paranoia about Soviet spies stealing secrets from the Americans, and marital infidelities. Throughout, the film depicts Oppenheimer as a man partially unaware of himself; Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), his Manhattan Project colleague, tellingly asks him, “Nobody knows what you believe! Do you?”
Mysteries of the self and the universe are conjoined in the film, whose early passages find Oppenheimer gazing upwards or out into the darkness amidst cutaways to twinkling stars, shining molecules, and paroxysmal flames. Oppenheimer segues between intimate close-ups of Murphy’s lined, gaunt face and made-for-70mm-IMAX panoramas of cities, mountain ranges, and the cosmos until the two, like every other at-odds element in this drama, feel naturally wedded to one another. Shot with grandeur by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, the film is sensually overwhelming, its titanic visuals matched by Ludwig Göransson’s bellowing score of anxious ticking, thunderous foot-stomping, discordant buzzing, and strident Psycho-esque strings. The last of these is remarkably apt, given that the proceedings are, in a certain sense, a nightmare about the corrosive legacy bequeathed by a parent to their (figurative) progeny.
Nolan begins with a flurry of borderline avant-garde cutting between spaces, places, and faces (courtesy of stellar editor Jennifer Lame), and he never lets his foot off the gas. Whether set in Oppenheimer’s Princeton classroom or his beloved New Mexico, every scene is awash in physical and mental movement and progresses at a pace fit for a pulse-pounding thriller. I can recall no biopic ever hurtling forward at such a scorching clip; it shifts among points of literal, conceptual, temporal, and geographic focus at a speed that allows the director to cram an amazing amount of biographical material into his three-hour opus.
At the same time, and particularly with his fiercely loyal wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), the film finds room to also suggest the incidents, dynamics, and struggles taking place beyond the edges of his compositions. Be it Oppenheimer’s impetuous attempt to poison a tutor with a cyanide-laced apple, his volatile romantic relationships, confrontational but respectful partnership with Manhattan Project director Brigadier General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), combative rapport with prosecutor Roger Robb (Jason Clarke), or frustration with Teller—whose interest in fashioning an even more powerful hydrogen bomb he opposed—Oppenheimer is loaded with detail, nuance, incongruity, and ambiguity.
There’s an embarrassment of riches to digest, savor, and mull over in this saga, which touches upon the exhilaration of scientific discovery, the fear of inventing something over which the inventor has no control, and the alarming consequences of paving a historic path, especially when it leads directly to Pandora’s Box. At every turn, superb supporting performances are delivered by Damon, Blunt, Kenneth Branagh, Rami Malek, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Matthew Modine, Alden Ehrenreich, and Tom Conti as Albert Einstein (who knows how uneasily lies the head that wears the crown). Special mention goes to David Krumholtz as Isidor Isaac Rabi, an Oppenheimer associate whose initial moral qualms about joining the Manhattan Project are eventually shared by Oppenheimer and, in the end, by the film. Oppenheimer draws its figures in vigorous strokes, capturing their hesitancy and certainty, loyalty, and treachery—none better than Strauss, whom a tremendous Downey Jr. transforms into the vilest sort of jealous, vindictive rat.
At the center of this maelstrom is Oppenheimer, whom Nolan lionizes to the point of having him don his trademark hat and coat like he was Bruce Wayne putting on his Batsuit. Murphy imbues the scientist with so many warring traits, impulses, and instincts—he’s peerlessly perceptive and blind to his own faults; ambitious and uneasy in the spotlight; self-possessed and ultimately unsure of his choices—that his countenance resonates as a topographical map of his increasingly harried soul. It’s a magnificent marquee turn from the Peaky Blinders star (and frequent Nolan collaborator), providing a micro and macro concept of the physicist’s internal and external battles. No matter if he’s enormous or minuscule in the frame, Oppenheimer as envisioned by Nolan is a pioneer as titanic as the mushroom clouds that his “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” produced. He’s also just as controversial, viewed by his comrades and the public as an exceptional hero, and his McCarthyite detractors and enemies as a left-leaning Communist incapable of being trusted with the nation’s security.
Oppenheimer’s socialist sympathies and Judaism are presented as core aspects of his personality and motivation for embarking upon his atom-bomb quest, and the former proves a persistent thorn in his side and results in his (temporary) downfall. His complexity additionally extends to his private life. “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” muses Oppenheimer upon witnessing the Manhattan Project’s maiden “Trinity” test, and yet he first utters that Bhagavad Gita quote in the film when he’s in bed with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), the mistress whose suicide would be one of many deaths for which he blamed himself. Love and misery, triumph and tragedy, desire and obligation—all are writ small and large by Nolan, with the personal and political colliding in unpredictable, calamitous ways.
Intensely attuned to its protagonist’s heart and mind, Oppenheimer wrestles with questions of justness and responsibility regarding the atom bomb’s development and function, and with Oppenheimer’s alternately reasonable, reckless, and misguided decisions. It’s a complex character study-cum-history lesson that recognizes that our greatest accomplishments can also be our doom, violently shaking the world in explosions of dazzling light and cacophonous sound (or eerie silence) that leave behind charred bodies, tattered reputations, unappeasable bitterness, and tormented psyches. It's the creation myth of our contemporary age, begat in eruptions of 10,000-foot-tall pillars of fire that swallow the past and engulf us with dreadful ferocity. “A terrible revelation of divine power” is how Oppenheimer describes his paradigm-shifting weapon of mass destruction, and he might as well be speaking about Oppenheimer itself. This is surely the finest and most inspired film of Nolan’s career, not to mention 2023’s best.