Oppenheimer: Profoundly Revealing and Moving

There aren’t many people who don’t know who Oppenheimer is. As the father of the atomic bomb, most people have heard of the man. But how many of us know very much about his accomplishments and life outside of Los Alamos? I know there was a lot of information I wasn’t aware of. When I heard that this film was coming out, I desperately wanted to see it. Learning that Cillian Murphy was in the titular role, with Robert Downey Jr and Matt Damon also starring in the film made it impossible for me not to want to see this film. I had high hopes that the film would be good with such an excellent cast but it rose higher than my expectations. The film was profoundly revealing and moving, shining a light on Oppenheimer’s life and politics, his work and his personality. The acting was phenomenal and the story compelling. 

“Oppenheimer” is an epic biographical thriller film written and directed by Christopher Nolan based on the 2005 biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin that focuses on J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), a theoretical physicist who was pivotal in developing the first nuclear weapons as part of the Manhattan Project and thereby ushering in the Atomic Age. The film focuses on Oppenheimer’s work on the Manhattan Project, how pivotal his role was in racing to create the first nuclear weapon in pursuit of saving the world from the Germans reaching that goal first. It also highlights the consequences and outcomes once the war is over and Oppenheimer grapples with the moral implications of his work. It also gives us glimpses of his personal life, his relationship with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), his wife Kitty (Emily Blount) and the many men he worked with on the project. 

In “Oppenheimer”, Christopher Nolan has outdone himself, creating a gripping portrayal of one of the most influential names in American history. One of the reasons that the film is so compelling is due to the writing. Christopher Nolan weaves a story that illustrates for the audience the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer in a way that keeps the audience engaged and absorbed in the content. He moves backwards and forwards in time, juxtaposing Oppenheimer’s past with the McCarthy age as Nolan explores both the accomplishments of Oppenheimer but also the truth of who the man was, his beliefs, his politics and the consequences of his work. One of the things the writing does incredibly well is tie in accurate details of Oppenheimer’s life but in an engaging manner that makes the audience want to know more. Nolan explores his rise as a physicist, his political influences, his time in academia but also turns his eye to after the war when Oppenheimer fought against his security clearance being revoked and then shines a light on Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) who served on the Atomic Energy Commission, a man directly influential on Oppenheimer’s later years.

One of the reasons this film is so riveting is the charismatic nature of who Oppenheimer was. This was a man who was highly intelligent, who while being far from perfect, delved into the nature of the universe. He spoke and read multiple languages. As the film lays out the details of his life and his work, it is impossible not to find yourself absorbed by the nature of Oppenheimer as Nolan shines a lens on the men Oppenheimer worked with, the women he spent time with and his personal beliefs and unwillingness to compromise his own personal integrity over those beliefs. The writing also does fantastic work into delving into the moral consequences and the very real nature of atomic bombs, the aftermath of Hiroshima and America’s role in creating and maintaining the cold war.  

The visuals and music in this film border on genius. We are provided glimpses into how Oppenheimer might have seen and interpreted the world, flashes of visions that capture the imagination and foreshadow his eventual work on atomic weapons. While it might not be necessary to see this film in Imax, the experience enhances some of the visual work put into the film, especially the Trinity test bomb accomplished at Los Alamos. Those big, bold visuals are worth the trip. The music enhances the pacing, the rush to accomplish the test but also increases the emotional weight of such moments as when the bombs are dropped and Oppenheimer’s guilt and remorse over the events. The music is breathtakingly beautiful at times.

Without the performances this film would not resonate so strongly. The cast is incredible in this film, all highly accomplished actors. But there are some standouts. Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer is outstanding in the role, bringing depth and emotional complexity to his performance. He is charismatic and compelling. Alongside his performance, others excel as well. Robert Downey Jr. is amazing as Lewis Strauss, demonstrating in his portrayal the intelligence of the man but also his political scheming. Matt Damon as Leslie Groves, the man who recruited Oppenheimer for the Manhattan Project is another shining star in this movie. His dynamic with Cillian Murphy is powerful, a brilliant performance. Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh as Kitty and Jean Tatlow are incredible. Both women are emotional, their performances layered and nuanced. As Kitty, Emily Blunt demonstrates the reason Oppenheimer married her. Florence Pugh’s portrayal illustrates the deep connection between Jean Tatlow and Oppenheimer. Beyond the main stars, the entire cast is brilliant as scientists who worked with Oppenheimer, including his brother Frank played by Dylan Arnold, Josh Hartnett as Ernest Lawrence, Rami Malek as David Hill, Benny Safdie as Edward Teller, Kenneth Branaugh as Niels Bohr, and Casey Affleck as Boris Pash. All the performances of each individual contribute to creating a profoundly revealing and moving film.

If there is anything to caution audiences on, it’s this. The film is full of depth and complexity but exploring the life of Oppenheimer and his role in the atomic age takes time to build. In order to portray him as a real person, his charisma but also the emotional weight of his decisions, the film devotes time to his early life, not just jumping to Los Alamos. But that does make this film have a very long run time. While I personally found it worth it, being completely absorbed and engaged in the film, it is something for audiences to be aware of. Also, there were many names introduced throughout this movie. Many of the actors I have named but there were too many to name all the critical scientists who took part in the Manhattan Project or others who influenced J. Robert Oppenheimer. There are a lot of moving parts in this movie but again, this only enhances the realism of the film. Without being accurate in the details of Oppenheimer’s life, you would be missing important elements and emotional moments.

If you love Christopher Nolan’s work or are interested in the man who created the atomic age, J. Robert Oppenheimer, you will definitely want to check out this film. In particular, this is Cillian Murphy’s best performance, full of emotion, depth, and complexity. He was made to play this role. Robert Downey Jr. also gives a performance that is among his best work as well, compelling and engaging. In fact, all the performances are some of the best I’ve seen on screen, as Christopher Nolan explores the moral dilemmas Oppenheimer faces and the weight of his decisions. He seamlessly blends cinematography with the historical details, creating emotional depth. The film reveals details about Oppenheimer that are profoundly moving and the film ends on a note that raises questions about scientific exploration and what the fate of the world will be in this modern, atomic age. This is unquestionably one of the best biographies I’ve seen. 


Rating: 5 out of 5 atomic bombs

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