Oppenheimer Review – The Song That Plays At the End of the World

Oppenheimer is not about the atomic bomb. Christopher Nolan’s newest blockbuster is, very simply, about a man. A man so confused, broken, irrational, and undependable that by his own admission he could not have managed a hamburger stand. A Jewish man in the time of the Holocaust, who the United States government incorrectly suspected to be a Russian spy and who was prosecuted all his life for it. A man who did not follow military rules, had no experience in the practical creation of nuclear fission, and had never managed a project in his life. A womanizer who constantly cheated. An egoist who believed he was always the smartest man in the room.

J. Robert Oppenheimer was put in charge of the Manhattan Project not in spite of these details – it was because of these details that he was, at the time, the only man in the world who could have pulled it off. As a film, Oppenheimer is excellent on every level, yes, but it’s just as much due to its source material (aka real history) that it tells one of the most fascinating stories I’ve seen put to the screen in years. I had the good fortune to be close enough to a screening of the 70 mm IMAX version of Oppenheimer (only an hour’s drive each way!), and so was able to witness this spectacle the way the director envisioned it. I implore you, if you are close enough to one of these 30 theaters showing the true 70 mm IMAX edition, you must go.

First, I must recommend that if you are interested in Oppenheimer at all you read the biography on which the film was based, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. If you’re more of an audial learner, the excellent Last Podcast on the Left just wrapped up a six-part, 10 hour history series about the real Manhattan Project, where I’ve gotten most of my knowledge about the subject before going into Nolan’s biopic. Frankly, a courtroom drama drowning in scientific jargon shouldn’t be this interesting. It should not have had me at the edge of my seat for the full last hour of the movie. But it did.

It must be stressed that while Oppenheimer focuses on the Manhattan Project for a large chunk of its three-hour runtime, it is always first and foremost about the man J. Robert Oppenheimer. The film is at first a bit confusing in structure, as it tells three stories across three timelines from Oppenheimer’s life concurrently. The brunt of the film follows Oppenheimer from the late 30s to the mid 40s and chronicles his journey from Princeton to leading The Manhattan Project. The second story is set in 1954, during Oppenheimer’s appeal against a rigged council to gain his security clearance back after a letter orchestrated by Atomic Energy Committee member Lewis Strauss made its way to the FBI declaring that “more probably than not J. Robert Oppenheimer is an agent of the Soviet Union.” The third setting is five years later in 1959, all in black and white, and details the famous senate confirmation hearing of the same prospective cabinet member Lewis Strauss.

While this seems like a lot of story to be mixed into a continuous flow, slipping back and forth between them with no certain rhythm, every flip is deliberate. It’s astounding that each part of Oppenheimer’s life was so inescapably examined that Nolan was able to do this, but every cut back and forth between storylines is purposeful and emphasizes the previous scene. I think deliberate is probably the best word I can use to describe Oppenheimer, or perhaps purposeful is better. Quick cuts to atoms splitting, horrific screams of the citizens of Hiroshima, and propaganda reels punctuate Cillian Murphy’s deft performance as the titular character, adding weight to his words and actions.

The key factor that makes Oppenheimer work is that even as we watch the man try and fail, be pushed around, watch him struggle to maintain control of the beast he has created, we, as the audience, know how this all ends. We know it ends with 200,000 innocent lives lost in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We know the story of the Atomic Bomb leads to hundreds of thousands of cases of radiation poisoning, to skin peeling off living humans, to limbs simply falling off the victims who tried to swim to safety. We know the creature that Oppenheimer is building is more powerful than he could have known.

Cillian Murphy turns in what I will hang my hat on as a career-defining performance. Knowing much about the real man he was portraying left me slack-jawed and amazed. Murphy became J. Robert Oppenheimer for this film, in a way I worry was unforgiving to his health and well-being. Before Nolan began writing the script for Oppenheimer, he called Murphy to get him on board. From the very beginning, Murphy has embodied the most complicated and important man of the 20th century with what seems like ease to us viewers. That’s when you know you’re watching a master at work. I feel ready to guarantee that this time next year, Murphy will have a well-earned Oscar resting on his living room shelf.

Our supporting cast turns in remarkable performances as well, and that’s actually all the more impressive considering how little screen time most of the actors get. Besides Robert Downey Jr.’s amazing performance as Lewis Strauss, for which I pray he also earns an Oscar nomination, Matt Damon’s turn as General Groves was of particular interest to me. This movie might, strangely, have more comedy in it than any of Nolan’s previous films (which is not a high bar), and most of that humor comes through from Damon. His role is particular and serious, and I’m reminded that he’s a force to be reckoned with. While Florence Pugh is excellent and upsetting as Oppenheimer’s drug-addled communist mistress, Emily Blunt stood out more for me as his wife Kitty. Imagining the pain, shame, embarrassment, pride, fame, and recognition that came with being the wife of J. Robert Oppenheimer is overwhelming. Blunt, once again, makes portraying this range of emotion look easy.

If you are familiar with Ludwig Göransson, you already have another reason to be ultra-hyped for Oppenheimer. The Oscar-winning Swedish composer of the Black Panther films has worked on everything from Star Wars to Community to producing most of Childish Gambino’s discography. He’s a legend in the world of score composition, and he does not disappoint with Oppenheimer. In what I think is the most powerful theatrical score I’ve heard in theaters since Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Joker, Göransson somehow has found the sounds that play at the end of the world. My only sour note for Oppenheimer is that it suffers from pretty rough audio level issues, with the film score overpowering the dialogue sometimes. This wouldn’t be an issue with subtitles on, but in the theater I had to strain to hear a few times. At least it’s not as bad as Tenet.

Oppenheimer works not because the end is a surprise, but because we are living in the end. Dozens of countries right now have nuclear devices pointed at each other, each one seconds away from firing. The United States did not lose the arms race; humanity did. Oppenheimer tells the story of the only man who ever understood Prometheus, who gave fire to man before he had earned it. Nolan’s latest film is not only his best ever, but his most important. J. Robert Oppenheimer, a man who was decidedly not evil, created one of the most evil things in human history. The film knows this – I think Murphy’s eyes as he watches the blast in Hiroshima may haunt me for a long, long time to come. I recommend Oppenheimer to absolutely everyone.

Nirav Gandhi
Nirav is a 30 year-old living in an unlicensed, extended Nintendo commercial. He considers Avatar: The Last Airbender to be the absolute apex of media. He's best known for his unsolicited Scooby-Doo trivia and rants about lore inconsistencies in the Fantastic Beasts movies.

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