For a filmmaker who likes to twist hallways, stage intricate fight sequences in reverse and overall bend the very nature of space and time to his will, Oppenheimer may be Christopher Nolan’s most bold film to date. Bold, given Nolan’s penchant for wowing us with spectacle, he leverages that reputation to lure audiences into IMAX theatres where the spectacular is not in the technical or the visually grandiose, but more in faces filled with bone aching regret. Part political thriller, part psychological horror with a whiff of biopic sensibilities, it’s a film more invested in a man wrestling with his legacy as being the father of one of the greatest existential calamities the world has known.
Told at a brisk clip, the film jumps back and forth as J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) goes from wide eyed physics student to destroyer of worlds. The narrative shifts between colour and black and white, as we’re told the story of how the bomb came to be and the destruction it reaped, not only on the world, but its creator’s soul. Nolan sets himself the challenge of weaving between genres, jumping from scientific conundrums to moral dilemmas. It’s also Nolan’s most political film to date, delving surprisingly deep into the physicist’s past associations with the American communist party, and the effect it has on those around him. Large swathes of the film takes place during the confirmation hearing of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) for US Secretary of Commerce, with Nolan using the bureaucrat’s point of view as a kind of Rashomon sleight of hand.
Nolan may have set himself his greatest challenge. Aside from the marvel of the big bang, the film is heavy with talking heads and worried men all wondering that what they’re doing may or may not kick start a chain reaction that could end the world. There’s no crashing planes or cities folding on themselves. It may be his most stripped down film since earlier in his career and yet it is completely engaging. For the heaving three hour runtime, this writer was completely immersed and invested in events readily found in history books, but here presented with a low hum of dread, the dust of an existential crisis not easily washed off once the film ends. It may very well be Nolan at his most vulnerable to date, shirking the technical wizardry he’s known for and instead heavily relying on the compelling performances from the army of actors he’s assembled.
It’s a who’s who of known up and comers, leading men, would-be leading men and those who should have been bigger than Hollywood allowed them to – all passing through the film, dropping career bests and gracefully exiting stage right (nary a sign of Sir Michael Caine in sight, I’m afraid). Nolan’s deduced, cleverly, that for an audience to remain engrossed in scenes dealing with some of the most complex science known to man, the performances have to be engrossing, with no weak link amongst the cast. While Murphy is acting for his life, young Josh Hartnett reminds us all why he was perceived to be the “It” boy of the early 00’s and why he deserves another look in as a compelling leading man.
Endless words will be written about Downey Jr’s performance, and already the rumblings of the Oscar nomination war machine has begun. And it’s well deserved. The man is given permission to be a complete weasel, a total vacuum of charm and devoid of any and all swagger. His Strauss, not unlike the real life counterpart, is a tiny man living in the shadows of Oppenheimer’s achievements and it may be the best RDJ has ever been. It’s remarkable, too, that he manages to shine almost, almost above all others, considering just how good his performing partners are.
So too is Emily Blunt utterly white hot with raw talent. As Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, she’s brimming with acid for any and all who cross her husband, a complex woman who understands, maybe all too well, where Robert’s place is in the annuls of history. On paper, there isn’t an incredible amount for Blunt to do, but onscreen she is wringing out every ounce of a performance she can, not content with sitting in the corner looking dour whilst swirling a martini in her hand. She brings depth where there wasn’t, and is a standout every minute she’s on screen, one particular moment of sparring between her and Jason Clarke being a shining spark in an already combustible atmosphere.
Murphy has been a tried and true mainstay in Nolan’s arsenal, and here he is the director’s greatest weapon. We’ve all had fun with the endless commentary about Murphy’s thousand mile stare in any and all promotional material, the “what have I done” look of a man who’s just created mankind’s mechanism for its own end. But his Oppenheimer is seldom lost in his own mental abyss. A man beset by visions of a hidden universe, he has a voracious appetite for quantum physics, a curiosity that often blinds him from the bigger picture At one point we’re told that Oppenheimer embraced his moniker as the Father of the Atomic bomb, a title that should exude an aura of hubris. However, Murphy imbues Oppenheimer with a sense of unbearable naivety and faulty curiosity. Often at odds with other scientists, he refuses to claim ownership over his creation, stating that while he and his team built “the gadget” he doesn’t get to decide for what purpose it is used. It’s not until the fog of war has lifted, and countless lives are lost that the true magnitude of what he’s created, what mechanical Lucifer he’s helped birth into the world dawns on him. It’s here that, like Oppenheimer wearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, so too does Murphy bear the heft of Nolans’ creation. There is true beauty and awe to be found in even the most subtlest of moments in his performance and it is one that cements his place as one of the great actors of his generation.
Given his love for the technically astounding, working in themes that are drenched in the wonderful complexities that time and space have to offer, only Nolan could have made Oppenheimer this compelling. It’s a beautifully intimate, psychologically scarring story dealing with maybe the most grandiose of stakes and consequences moving at a pace that seldom gives you a moment to catch your breath. And maybe that’s the point. If, like Murphy’s Oppenheimer, you think a little too hard about the subject matter, peer a little too deeply in to the blackness of mankind’s appetite for destruction, you may find yourself staring blankly into the abyss imagining a possible future of self-imposed fire and ash. Possibly right where Nolan wanted you all along.