Oppenheimer – Review

Oppenheimer Emily Blunt Cillian Murphy“Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”

Christopher Nolan’s biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer, based on Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherman’s book, American Prometheus, weaves effortlessly between the bombastic and the deeply intimate. The three hour run time doesn’t seem long enough when it comes to exploring the rise and fall of the “father of the A-bomb”.

Cillian Murphy – in the lead role – allows us to bear into the soul of a man who changed the face of contemporary warfare. The lingering close ups, the disorientating camera over his shoulder, the intensity of his performance embed us deeply in the story of a troubled genius. And whilst this “poor, clever man” routine has been done to death in Hollywood, its consequences have never felt quite so real.

Since this is a Christopher Nolan film, the biopic isn’t unravelled in a linear structure. We see flashbacks to his university days, mingled in with his time at Los Alamos and his post-war pariah status. We get access to facets of the man that make us understand who he is and why he makes the decisions he does. Nolan also treats us to gorgeous black and white sequences wherein we see Robert Downey Jr’s Lewis Strauss prepare for election to the presidential cabinet. As Nolan merges these two stories together, we become entrenched in dirty politics and personal vendettas. We are coated in that same fine layer of grime that seems to pervade life in Los Alamos.

The script, written by Nolan himself, is one of the most compelling in recent cinema. There are reams upon reams of fast-paced dialogue tempered with horrifically long pauses. Whilst we ultimately know the outcome of the story, the writing builds layers of personal stories, making the ending every bit as shocking as it should be. Nolan allows this array of historical figures to debate and connect; to fall in love and to scheme; to plot revenge and to suffer. Just about every facet of human life is on display here – it just so happens to be against the backdrop of nuclear war. The rapid fire dialogue (and the speech-making that many characters indulge in) draws us into their motivations and their fears.

And in that sense, despite the gravity of the situation, the characters feel incredibly real, here. These lives and losses occurred in our not-so-distant past and so it’s important that Nolan enables us to see their feelings in a way that is tangible and empathetic. Cillian Murphy is at his most powerful, here. The despair of his success is written all over Oppenheimer’s face. His suits continue to slacken on his frame as he realises what his physics has unleashed. Robert Downey Jr is gleefully self-serving as Lewis Strauss. After over a decade of seeing him in a Marvel suit, this is a delicious dramatic role for the actor. Emily Blunt has a few accent slips as Kitty, Oppenheimer’s alcoholic wife, but she really comes into her own towards the end and we’re able to see more than a hint of steel-eyed ambition. Matt Damon is solid as Leslie Groves, the man who pushes Oppenheimer and his team into a new era of weaponry.

Oppenheimer film reviewWhen you have a cast so large, getting an audience to care is no mean feat. Whilst Murphy et al positively devastate in the more prominent roles, the supporting cast hasn’t signed up to be spare parts, either. The likes of Alden Ehrenreich, Gustaf Skarsgard, Tom Conti, Dane DeHaan, Josh Hartnett, David Dastmalchian, Matthias Schweighofer and Kenneth Branagh all lend to the excitement, the personal disputes, the tension and the passion. This illustrious roll call of stars does nothing to hinder the plot, the character development or the impending doom which Nolan so effortlessly builds.

The sound design, coupled with Ludwig Goransson’s score, makes for an unnerving cinematic experience. Explosions happen when you least expect them and there is silence as you await a big bang. The sticky, scratchy sound of a Geiger counter adds to the mounting tension. The use of sound when Oppenheimer greets bleachers full of adoring employees is almost unbearable in its intensity. This is a film that knows how to play with loud and soft, delivering moments that will grip your heart in their hands.

Oppenheimer is a truly operatic retelling of one of the most significant moments in modern history. Cillian Murphy is unashamedly bruising in the lead role, drawing us into his personal and professional trauma, whilst the sound and the script make this perhaps the most exhilarating movie experience of the year. In telling the story of a piece of work that changed the face of humanity, Nolan might just have created his own best work.

Oppenheimer is now screening in cinemas (including IMAX and a special 70mm print at the Glasgow Film Theatre).

Mary Munoz
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