I’ve been going about my life comfortably believing that Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse would be the best western movie of the decade. And then came Oppenheimer.
After sitting on it for a while, I’m honestly still debating which was the best watch of the year so far, but regardless, managing to be on the same level as a Spider-verse movie (especially with an animation fan like me) is a feat of its own. Going into this movie completely and utterly blind, I absolutely loved it. I genuinely, wholeheartedly believe that it’s cemented itself as one of my favourite movies of all time. I know that’s a big claim, but trust me, Oppenheimer is worth it.
Since its premiere, most of the internet is already aware that Christopher Nolan’s latest film is a (mostly accurate) biographical retelling of the life of J Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb.” Or, after watching the movie, I suppose American Prometheus is a better title.
At heart, that is how Nolan, adapting from Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin’s book American Prometheus, portrays Oppenheimer; a man who gave humans the ‘gift’ of destruction and was tortured for eternity because of it. Instead of being chained to a rock and having his liver eaten daily like his greek counterpart, Dr Oppenheimer’s torture is a lot more internal and self-inflicted, if you will. And I imagine a thousand times more painful.
There are numerous themes within the story, as every good movie should have, but its soul is Oppenheimer’s own turmoil after creating the atomic bomb. Portrayed beautifully through Nolan’s writing and directing and acted out incredibly by Cillian Murphy, this was some of the best writing cinema has seen since, well, I would say years, but Spider-verse came out in June.
It was one of the best internal struggles I’ve seen in a long time. Keep in mind that although Oppenheimer’s turmoil mainly all leads back to guilt, it is also layered with the struggle we see between guilt, the damage he’s done by constructing a bomb that could destroy humanity, and the pride he has in serving his country and saving all the lives he did by ending the war early. Although short-lived, the struggle is there and it’s important. Even when barely feeling pride, his guilt increases and sends him down a spiral, trapped in his own mind. And with a mind as great as J Robert Oppenheimer’s, that’s a dangerous place to be.
This internal conflict was portrayed sincerely, authentically and subtly, with nuance and many different sides. Whether seeing him deal with it through denial, self-loathing, regret, desensitisation, morality or by openly disagreeing with the furthering of the arms race (cough Hydrogen Bomb cough) and also struggling with his feelings of pride, it was all done and written beautifully. I cannot say anymore without spoilers, but I’m sure you don’t need evidence; it’s Christopher Nolan, what would you expect?
However, if Oppenheimer’s turmoil was the soul of the story, then the frankly underrated and unmentioned theme of curiosity is the heart. Portraying the construction of the atomic bomb from the perspectives of the scientists that built it was a genius move, one that’s never been done before.
They just wanted to know. Which scientist would pass up the opportunity of doing the impossible? Of proving that they were the ones able to break all previously established rules? For a significant portion of the movie, that’s what the construction of the bomb was viewed with — curiosity, wonder and a challenge. These genius minds were simply and sincerely curious. And curiosity killed the cat. The sudden drop from that whimsy is one of the most effective thematic and tonal portrayals I’ve ever witnessed, both on and off screen.
It is widely known that the atomic bomb testing was successful, so it wouldn’t be a spoiler to mention that during its portrayal on screen, a few guys in the cinema started clapping. Gradually, a large chunk of the audience joined them, caught up in the moment. And, just a few scenes later, that exact thing is picked apart on screen in a tremendously directed and written scene — what exactly are we clapping for? The intentions were good, sure — they were celebrating the achievement of the impossible, in awe just like the scientists were. But it’s still the atomic bomb, the destroyer of worlds. This exact feeling was portrayed by Oppenheimer on screen and the way Nolan masterfully crafted it to fit with the audience and for the audience to relate to him on such a level, even if only for a scene, whether intentional or not, is the work of a master craftsman. To get the audience to feel shame.
Just like Oppenheimer.
Apart from him, the character of his wife, Emily Blunt’s Kitty, is also extremely well done, especially in the latter half of the film. She is the brawn to his brains, the fighter to his martyr, the (surprisingly) sturdy, albeit chaotic, anchor while he’s getting lost in a sea of his turmoil, and, simply, his wife. Yet, despite being a counterpart to ‘his’ everything, she is so distinctly and clearly her own. An incredibly written character, and although I can’t say I was very fond of her in the beginning, by the end of the film I almost had more respect for her than I did for her husband. Now, they sit equally high in my heart, as they do in the movie.
Other acting highlights were Matt Damon’s General Groves, Florence Pugh’s Jean Tatlock and Robert Downey Jr’s Lewis Strauss, as well as Tom Conti’s Einstein — his portrayal was surprisingly endearing. The themes of loyalty and betrayal are also worth mentioning, and how, contrary to the recent American imperialism trend present in most Hollywood movies, it’s actually both portrayed and, in my opinion, mocked. However, the most glaring point we haven’t discussed yet is Nolan’s masterful directing.
As a writer, I’ve discussed his genius enough, but as a director, no analysis or praise would ever be enough, so I won’t even try. Embracing his fragmented storyline techniques once again, the timeline is scattered, creating a wonderful sense of suspense, mystery and that there’s always more to the story. While some scenes are portrayed in a hard, black and white ‘factual’ lens, Oppenheimer’s own extraordinary life being played out in colour was not just symbolic but also helpful in differentiating between the narrative back-and-forth. The unexpected jumps and jolts of stars, space and atoms depending on what Oppenheimer’s mind was crafting or dissecting, added to both the chaotic and calm scenes. Either way, writer or director, Nolan is a true master of storytelling. Composer Ludwig Göransson’s masterful touch added to the scenes just that much more.
In conclusion, and honesty, I prefer to sit on a story for quite a while before grabbing my notebook and picking it apart, but with Oppenheimer, I could neither analyse without spoiling it nor wait to discuss it, so this review is a compromise. My only concern is that I won’t be able to do this gem of a movie justice so please, if you take anything away from this, let it be to watch Oppenheimer yourself. It’s the kind of movie I believe everyone needs to see.