Oppenheimer review: Extraordinary movie about an extraordinary man

Chris Tilly
Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer details the building of the atomic bomb, the toll it took on those involved, and the devastating affect their invention had on humanity. It’s a complex story, that asks impossible questions, and offers no easy answers. But it’s also an extraordinary movie, about an extraordinary man.

It feels like Christopher Nolan’s career has been building to this. The complex themes. The fractured timelines. The ingenious practical effects. The combining of big-budget spectacle with thought-provoking subject matter.

But where the likes of Inception, Interstellar, and Tenet dealt in science fiction, Oppenheimer is all about cold, hard facts, concerning the birth of the atomic bomb, and the catastrophic events that followed.

It’s also his first biopic, covering key events in the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, famed as the father of said bomb. But this being a Christopher Nolan movie, the narrative is fragmented, and the use of picture and sound unique. Meaning Oppenheimer is unlike any biopic yet seen.

Bringing Oppenheimer to life

To tell J. Robert Oppenheimer’s tale, the film endeavours to get inside the theoretical physicist’s head by splitting proceedings between black-and-white footage, and color.

The black-and-white scenes – deemed ‘fusion’ – seem to be fact; Nolan presenting them as what really happened. If that’s possible in a narrative feature.

The color sequences – dubbed ‘fission’ – are Oppenheimer’s point-of-view; the film endeavouring to get inside the man’s head by viewing proceedings through his eyes. So those watching see how he visualises both the real world, and the quantum world.

It’s an ambitious approach, but one that succeeds because it means the movie avoids passing judgement on the man and his actions. Leaving that for the audience to decide.

When genres collide

Throughout his career, Christopher Nolan has embraced non-linear storytelling, and Oppenheimer is no different, the narrative jumping back-and-forth in time to tell multiple tales concurrently. But it also straddles genres in exhilarating fashion.

Oppenheimer begins like a straightforward biopic, the title character studying at Cambridge. Becoming interested in Communism. And interacting with “questionable” individuals whose own loyalties eventually cast doubt on Robert’s.

He then becomes Director of the Manhattan Project, and the film turns into something more akin to a sports movie. Charged with the task of turning theory into a practical weapons system that might end WWII, Robert decamps to a purpose-built town in Los Alamos, and sets about recruiting the best scientists in the world.

Training, organising, and motivating follows to unite the team behind that common cause. Before building towards the big moment in the shape of the Trinity test, which as a by-product gives the film a literal ticking clock. And ends in perceived success, the bomb detonating, and Oppenheimer celebrating in front of an American flag.

Down this path there’s a spot of romance via Robert’s love for wife Kitty, and his complicated, combustible relationship with Jean Tatlock. While there’s a thriller element concerning potential traitors on the Trinity team.

Though ultimately, Oppenheimer transforms into a courtroom drama. Or more specifically a ‘room’ drama, as the character’s trial unfolds outside the confines of court, and in a cramped and decidedly un-cinematic space.

But in spite of those grim surroundings, it plays out in supremely compelling fashion. These scenes ask tough question of Robert. Reframe much of what’s gone before. And tie the competing strands together so those multiple genres feel like they are part of a single, cohesive story.

What is Oppenheimer about?

While ostensibly about the Herculean effort to build an atomic bomb, Oppenheimer is concerned with so much more.

Loyalty is a central theme of the movie; what it means to be loyal to your country, family, and friends, as well as how you react when that loyalty comes into question. Betrayal also plays a major role in proceedings, and on that front, the film feels pretty clear on where it stands.

But more complex are the ethical dilemmas at the heart of Oppenheimer. Regarding how it feels to create a weapon of mass genocide. When said bomb should ever be used, if ever. And where responsibility for the weapon rests once it is complete.

There are no easy answers to those questions, the film presenting arguments and opinions from every side without forcing any conclusions. While in spite of the fact that Oppenheimer revolves around the bomb being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we only hear that event described, or see characters react to footage and photos. Once again leaving the audience to fill in blanks that no film could reasonably convey.

Assembling an elite ensemble

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer.

The acting ensemble assembled by casting director John Papsidera is one of the all-time greats, so-much-so that it could be distracting seeing a star in every corner of the screen. But this never feels like stunt casting, as each actor is perfectly matched to their role.

Robert Downey Jr. deserves to be singled out for his work as Lewis Strauss, a complex, nuanced performance that doesn’t reveal its true brilliance until the film’s end. And a stark reminder of why he’s one of Hollywood’s best.

Matt Damon is on scene-stealing form as Leslie Groves, the gruff army general with whom Oppenheimer frequently butts heads. He even gets a few laughs during a film where they’re notably absent. While Emily Blunt is deeply affecting as Kitty, drinking her way through a miserable life, then delivering the film’s most celebratory scene, in a feature that’s otherwise filled with hollow victories.

But Oppenheimer belongs to Cillian Murphy as the title character, playing a physicist and a politician, one with the charisma to galvanise others into changing the world. But equally a man that’s filled with contradictions, giving little away, and rarely showing emotion.

That’s a tough ask, but as Peaky Blinders fans know, it’s all in the eyes with Murphy, and here his expressive face leaves one in little doubt of the pain, rage, and regret bubbling beneath Robert’s surface.

Is Oppenheimer good?

That said, while Oppenheimer is Cillian Murphy’s movie, it also belongs to Christopher Nolan. As writer, he’s constructed a complex narrative, but one that’s easy to follow, which is no mean feat. And certainly welcome relief after the head-scratching convolution of Tenet.

Most audience members will know the why, the where, and the how of this story, but he also manages to tease tension out of the narrative, building a creeping sense of dread. And crafting twists, turns, and revelations through the inspired way that his script delivers information. Indeed, the big picture isn’t revealed until Oppenheimer’s very end, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking.

As director, the visuals are stunning; the stark black-and-white of facts contrasting beautifully the color of Oppenheimer’s lived experience. While cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and the effects team do wonders bringing the quantum world to life. And composer Ludwig Göransson brings beauty to the tender scenes, while his strings will be slicing through your brain during the darker material.

Oppenheimer review score: 5/5

Oppenheimer begins with a quote about Prometheus stealing from the gods, then being punished for all eternity. Which mirrors the tale being told here. But in spite of the fact that this is less biopic, and more horror movie, Oppenheimer nevertheless finds compassion in Robert’s story. Resulting in a towering achievement that’s up there with Nolan’s very best, and a film of both great importance, and true humanity.

Oppenheimer is in cinemas now, and you can find more coverage below:

| Oppenheimer review | Epic runtime revealed | R-rating explained | Best way to watch Oppenheimer | Christopher Nolan on sex scenes | Cast and characters | Filming locations | True story explained | Is Oppenheimer streaming? | Nolan ranked by Rotten Tomato scoresIs it based on a book? | Age-gap controversy explained Robert Pattinson’s influence | How Oppenheimer died | Christopher Nolan explains strange script | Did Japan ban Oppenheimer? | Review roundup | Does Oppenheimer have a post-credits scene? | Who dies? | Box officeEnding explained |


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About The Author

Chris Tilly is the TV and Movies Editor at Dexerto. He has a BA in English Literature, an MA in Newspaper Journalism, and over the last 20 years, he's worked for the likes of Time Out, IGN, and Fandom. Chris loves Star Wars, Marvel, DC, sci-fi, and especially horror, while he knows maybe too much about Alan Partridge. You can email him here: chris.tilly@dexerto.com.