With the exception of one film of his in recent years, and regardless of your opinion on him as a filmmaker, a new Christopher Nolan film releasing in theaters always feels like an event the scale of which we simply don’t get from many filmmakers anymore. Sure, we get that from franchises, sequels, films built off of festival hype, etc., but rarely does a single filmmaker bring out audiences on the weight of their name alone, and I believe the current list of those who could probably fit on one hand. Still, Nolan’s last film, Tenet (2020), while having its devoted fans, fell flat for many viewers (including myself), and perhaps some of that lies in the film insisting upon releasing during the height of the COVID pandemic, and many audiences (including myself once more), not being able to see the film in theaters, let alone in IMAX, the format it was filmed in, like most other Nolan films. Three years, a majority of the pandemic, and one nasty breakup with Warner Bros. later, we have returned to the splendor and excitement of a Christopher Nolan Event Film™.
As America plunges into the seemingly unending depths of World War II, on both the European and Pacific fronts, its leaders have become antsy in creating a machine of war that would act as the proverbial trump card for Allied Forces. Following the discovery of the process of nuclear fission, American forces begin assembling a team of nuclear scientists to help utilize nuclear energy to create a weapon of mass destruction the likes of which the world has ever seen, and to do so faster than the German forces, who have a considerable head start on the Allies. Despite misgivings from superiors about his left-wing political ideations, the control of the now famous (or infamous) Manhattan Project is remitted to the control of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), a brilliant, but tortured nuclear physicist, further tortured by the eventual dealings that come with giving humans the power to truly destroy themselves.
It’s easy to look at Oppenheimer on paper and view it as a standard biopic that happens to be directed by someone as notable as Christopher Nolan. Hell, you could even argue it’s easy to look at the trailers for the film and see it only as a standard biopic, because it’s hard to really boil down why Oppenheimer is as brilliant as it is on paper. Perhaps that’s the biggest stroke of brilliance about it, it’s a film’s film; you can’t just read about it, you can’t learn a damn thing about what and how this is being delivered to you from a trailer or a poster (the posters for this, sans the IMAX one, are awful). It’s a story that lives and dies on the biggest screen you can possibly imagine, even if this is Nolan’s smallest scale film since The Prestige (2006).
Still, despite this technically reduced scale (making a film for $100 million feels like an indie film in the year of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny somehow costing $295 million to make), this is no different from any of Nolan’s other films in that it demands to be seen on the largest screen possible, with the loudest, most ignorant sound system you’ve ever heard. Nolan can take something as straightforward as a Cabinet confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate and turn it into a blockbuster spectacle with the magic that exudes from his (as well as Director of Photography Hoyte Van Hoytema’s) effortless grasp on the IMAX 70mm format. Something as small as a Senate confirmation hearing can feel like an epic moment of cinematic grandeur in their hands, and it’s not something you find often at the movies anymore. We aren’t starving for big moments, but to make them out of such minute details is truly something special.
Cillian Murphy, always a bridesmaid, but never a bride for Nolan, is finally granted his leading role in a Nolan film after five go-arounds, and it is a sight to behold indeed. Murphy, emaciated, tortured, occasionally inconsolably horny, and rather unwilling to think of any consequence to any action of his until after he takes it, brings a tragic, often frustrating, but never not brilliant touch to man wracked by his own contrition for being the American Prometheus. It’s disturbing, unpalatable stuff, but nothing about the lingering threat of nuclear holocaust should be palatable. It’s Nolan’s most tragic protagonist to date.
Oppenheimer also serves as something of a parade for male character actors to get their day in the sun, and some typically leading actors bit-playing right behind them as if it’s truly no big deal. This is the sort of thing that makes Nolan such a powerhouse filmmaker, he can accrue actual Oscar-winning actors, place them in single-scene roles and somehow still create meaningful, memorable characters with weight and gravitas out of something so small. It quickly becomes something of a Flash-esque (2023) celebration of every actor you’ve once claimed is terribly underrated getting to show just how underrated they are, y’know…without the ghoulish CGI and disturbing of the dead.
Yet, it’s Robert Downey Jr.’s (Iron Man) performance as former Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss that has refused to leave my mind since the second this film ended. I feel like many viewers unfamiliar with Downey’s work outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are finally able to truly get a taste of the type of actor Downey is when he isn’t simply tasked with playing himself in a CGI superhero suit. There is such a depth and complexity to Downey’s performance here that is one part his own exceptional talent as an actor, but an equal measure of the absolutely stellar editing from Jennifer Lame (Tenet) that gives Strauss, as a film character, such a brutally compelling arc. It’s unlike anyone else’s in the film, and, given the film’s inappropriately stacked cast, it is a towering achievement of the craft.
Oppenheimer is a film for adults, and that’s not solely dependent on its R-rating (Nolan’s first since 2002’s Insomnia), but rather in the slower, denser material that is waded into as the film builds to its explosive climax. This is a film about concepts that humans should never have been physically able to grasp. It’s a testament to man’s hubris, to man’s shame (or lack thereof), and to man’s ability to utterly destroy themselves if given the chance. This isn’t some biopic about a man who created the bomb that ended World War II, but rather about the man who gave other men the power to decimate life as we know it, and the weight that comes along with that once they get a taste. Christopher Nolan has described the film as a type of horror film, and, in a sense, he is correct. For what is more horrifying than the end of days, or the uncertainty of when said days will come whilst we hold the power?
It’s easy to look at Oppenheimer and do the mental checklist in your mind of good cinematography, good editing, good score, good visual effects, good acting, etc.. I could probably even have checked off most of those when watching Tenet, a film which I did not like. But what makes Oppenheimer so genuinely outstanding is how absolutely haunting it is. This is a film that chills you to the bone with the implications it puts out for the audience to parse through themselves. Oppenheimer himself is neither hero nor villain, neither a savior or the antichrist, but something far more tragically human, something more disgustingly layered to a point that makes me sick to my stomach to even ponder carrying the burden of his creations. It’s a horror film about being both Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s Monster simultaneously, and how such a dichotomy can tear a soul apart, if there is a soul there to begin with.
In theaters July 21st, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Universal Pictures Oppenheimer website.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.