Written and directed by Christopher Nolan (based on the book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin)
If I had friends, I would undoubtedly owe each of them a coke, on the basis of the bet I'd have made with them several months ago, which would have gone something like this: "If you think that Oppenheimer is going to do big business because there's some unicorn-like untapped demand for movies for adults in this country, or in any country, then you're an idiot, and if it does more than merely respectably—and even then, purely thanks to the undying sacredness of the Christopher Nolan brand name amongst film bros—then sure, I'll buy you the soft drink of your choice." Well, we see how that's worked out and I would, indeed, have gone broke underestimating the—for simplicity's sake, we can say "intelligence" but the phrase "intellectual curiosity" would honestly not go too far—of the American public. On the other hand, by this weekend it'll have achieved a half-billion-dollar-and-counting take partially on the back of an Internet meme, so, ahem. (Also more expensive IMAX screenings.) And I still doubt any of its success matters much, outside of the undying sacredness of the Christopher Nolan brand name, but we'll see if I keep being wrong and I suppose I hope that I am.
The upside is that the consensus is on target here: if nothing else, it represents Nolan's best movie in a little while, and it's extremely easy for me to put it in the upper half of his filmography, and top two of his last decade-and-change. The really aggressive statement that I would like to make is, of course, complicated by the movie in his filmography it most resembles, Dunkirk, which is not that old—it came out six years and two movies ago—but they are, taken together, pretty much the twinned peaks of his output since 2010, or even 2006, and it's not a coincidence, I assume, that Oppenheimer resembles Dunkirk as much as it does: both are movies about World War II that take on crucial, famed events of that war; both are deliberately-intended Oscarbait; and both undercut being Oscarbait, and transcend being just Oscarbait, because while Nolan obviously wants Oscar recognition and, more importantly, for critics to stop pointing out all his real and imagined flaws, his impulse towards people-pleasing has, for good and ill, historically gotten swamped immediately by his contravening impulse to spitefully double-down on whatever anybody has said they didn't like about him.
I'm not out to psychoanalyze the man, but it's hard to avoid concluding anything else from the way his post-Dark Knight Rises filmography has ping-ponged around various registers, all identifably "Nolan" in their personality, but likewise all more-or-less openly in conversation with the criticisms Nolan's body of work has received. (For instance, Interstellar tried to have "more heart", and when people laughed at him—because his movies have always had heart, and Nolan forcing it was laughable—he responded by making two movies basically devoid of characters entirely; when people laughed at that, he retreated to a biopic about a figure who's been rendered fraught and complicated for him already; but, by the same token, when people complained about Tenet's sound mix he said "fuck you, I will make a movie that appears to be character-driven, and you still will have to strain to hear its dialogue.") Anyway, as with Wes Anderson, I think the pose of indifferent, olympian self-satisfaction is just that, a pose, and their latest works are mature enough to kind of quietly admit it; but Nolan's mix of flailing around trying to find the audience who'll fawn over everything he makes and reluctance to do anything any way but his way now proves surprisingly productive, in ways I don't think it was in Tenet. It's not altogether productive: let's just say it forthrightly that while you don't necessarily need a reason to shoot a film in 70mm IMAX, this is maybe the weakest affirmative use case imaginable, given what it mostly is (people talking in rooms and often very small rooms, in shallow focus), so that this is arguably the least obligatory big-screen experience Nolan's done since the beginning of his studio career—the Trinity detonation is built almost as an anti-spectacle, whereas Nolan makes the deliberate choice (not, I think, an unwise one) to let Hiroshima and Nagasaki go undepicted entirely—so the main reasons to see it in an IMAX theater are just because theaters are nice, and that's where it is, and because the aforementioned sound mix is incredibly important to the experience, though as it really is a mix thing and mostly a matter of volume, rather than a particularly multifaceted design thing, any theater (and probably your television, but hey, not your phone) would likely faithfully replicate that experience.
So you know what the movie is: the story of the Manhattan Project as led by J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy)—and to a much lesser extent, Oppenheimer's boss, Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves (Matt Damon)—and Oppenheimer's subsequent political fall from grace at the hands of a one-time ally, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). It also, in its shockingly-not-at-all-magisterial three hours, takes in Oppenheimer's promiscuous loves, in the form of his on-and-off affair with fellow academic, psychiatrist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), and his marriage to biologist (but mostly drunken housewife) Kitty (Emily Blunt); as well as Oppenheimer's dabbling in pre-war leftist politics, a stain in this milieu that comes back to haunt him as the Second World War shades into the Cold War and American paranoia over communist spies in our nuclear program became a useful cudgel in the hands of ambitious and vindictive men; as well as Oppenheimer's brash youth as a brilliant but distracted student, and his evolution from smug professor to smugger administrator to, somehow, even smugger pariah.
As a Nolan film, it jumbles these up in ways as much affective as causal, though the major distinction is between the parts in the 1930s and 1940s, which are in color and labeled "1. Fission," and the parts with Strauss in the 50s, which are in black-and-white and labeled "2. Fusion." Nolan has taken pains to inform us that the use of color and black-and-white indicate something as regards the reliability of their narratives, though I don't think they actually do—they sometimes lend Strauss and Downey's performance thereof the dignity of an equally-flawed but more-venal second protagonist—and I very much dislike the "1. Fission" and "2. Fusion" onscreen headings, which barely manage to even suggest two separate eras, let alone do much artful with the meanings of those words, and we all probably would have been better off with nothing, or date markers. The black-and-white isn't even as handsome as I think you'd prefer black-and-white photography recreating the 1950s to be (though I do like, a great deal, Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema's use of very precise eyelighting to place glowing embers in Oppenheimer and Strauss's eyes that sparkle so intensely that they almost look like—hell, I wouldn't bet my life they weren't—they're in color, specifically sparks of metallic gold). The black-and-white, otherwise, is mainly useful as a visual guide to the cross-cutting scheme, while the thing that feels the most like "a framing device" is the appeal of the revocation of Oppenheimer's security clearance in 1954, which doesn't really get its own aesthetic marker besides taking place in the film's very smallest room and the adjoining hallways. These intrude upon the 30s and 40s material as Nolan and editor Jennifer Lame see fit, though the meat of the film—Oppenheimer before, during, and immediately after the bomb—is handled mostly in chronological order.
Not, that is to say, ploddingly; it is, at times, too swift and summary. This especially impacts the romances with Tatlock and K. Oppenehimer, which just needed more space to breathe, especially as regards Tatlock, who's only in the movie just enough to get the point across, which is not exclusively "this nerd fucks," but weirdly, a bigger part of it than you'd like does seem to be to earn the film the big-boy-movie R-rating that it doesn't earn otherwise. (There are hallucinations of atomic violence, but they're notably demure, considering, and would benefit from either going much harder into horror or from retreating back into abstraction.) I am, mind you, not making the usual psycho puritan argument such as one, depressingly, doesn't have to look hard to find; I like Pugh's second scene, which is objectively much nuder. But her first scene—or I suppose "scene" in scarequotes, as the movie kind of does not have scenes per se—is harmed by including one of only two things I actively, urgently find bad about the movie, this positively bizarre "19 year old writes his first movie, incorporating what he believes makes for artistic seriousness" gesture from Nolan that requires Tatlock to discontinue coitus, wander over to Oppenheimer's bookshelf, select, very specifically, the Bhagavad Vita, wander back over and turn, very specifically, to the exact page before pointing to the exact spot where the Sanskrit quote is, thereby prompting Oppenehimer, with much portentous foreshadowing, to Say The Thing. Kitty, in any case, is ignored for significantly better purpose, so that when Blunt gets her shining moment she shines indeed. (For the record, the other thing I dislike isn't nearly as active or urgent, because I think it might actually be a joke—at Nolan's own expense, but also perhaps at Oppenheimer's—when the film contrives to set up a belligerently "iconic" image of Oppenheimer suiting up and putting on his fedora, like a fucking superhero costume.)
That's practically it as far as actual complaints go*, and even these complaints are, principally, "Oppenheimer is too much about Oppenheimer" (or, less glibly, "maybe Oppenheimer could have one line of dialogue not directly or indirectly related to atom bombs, perhaps delivered to his children"); and if I wanted, I could complain that there's not enough of Oppenheimer's fellow scientists—or else too much! They pop into the film like Nolan is excited to show off his Early 20th Century Physicist Trading Cards, like his ultra-rare Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh). I think it hits a sweet spot for this, developing a community without being overwhelmed by that community's individual stories. I maybe could complain about the absence of procedure—I don't think you would understand how atom bombs are made from this atom bomb movie—which must be the least Nolan thing here, in that, perhaps owing to the very fact that it is real science, he barely explains anything about it, which is a welcome departure from the hour he always spends in his other movies expositing his various forms of fake science. There's some points of interest I'd have perhaps liked to have seen given Nolan and Lame's treatment; but I can't really argue they're what the movie's about.
It's about Oppenheimer, and other than the Strauss material, the film is dedicated to an almost vicious degree to paring itself down to Oppenheimer, and, in particular, Murphy's somewhat bug-eyed Oppenheimer performance—which is, and you've heard it correctly, a really terrific performance (and, less-discussed, a gratifying elevation of Murphy, who finally gets a Nolan film leading role after delivering the best performance out of Nolan's ensemble in four out of his five previous Nolan collaborations**). It's a performance without which the film does not work even slightly, finding an infinite amount of variations within those x-ray vision stares to find everything from "far-sighted genius" to "religious terror" to "total dick without knowing it" to "total dick and definitely aware of it" to "martyr," and supplementing them with the occasional dropping of the eyelids for the purposes of semi-subtle sarcasm blown up to the size of the house on the screen I saw it on (so, there's some value to IMAX), or a flippant remark, or, even more occasionally, sympathetic woundedness. It's as much a result of the performance as anything else that the themes of the film come across, to the extent it has them—and I'm sure Nolan would be very offended by my insinuation, but I kind of mean it as a compliment, given that the worst extrinsic thing about Oppenheimer is probably introducing a new generation to the controversy so we get to hear so many finely-crafted hot takes by people who don't even know what Operation August Storm was—these themes being the way in which Nolan's fictional construct "Oppenheimer" has embodied, at a singular point in spacetime, the culmination of a process that had been rendered inevitable forty years earlier, and who is aware of this, despite his undeniable hubris, and who has therefore decided to try to outsmart the whole world by forcing it to confront the bomb on his terms, and having failed, is guiltier than he would have been had he succeeded given that becoming a god was, of course, satisfying to his ego, as he'd believed it had made him invulnerable to mere men. (The single best character beat Murphy gets comes very late—it's almost his last line, and I believe it is his last line, chronologically—indicating that he has yet to concede his legacy's failure.)
And that's very good, and humane in its treatment of a figure nevertheless rendered as legend describes him; and for all that, I do not, personally, find Oppenheimer very thought-provoking because, believe it or not, I, a grown adult, have given a significant amount of thought to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki already. (Even so, my second-favorite character beat that Murphy gets is the incredible, damned near supernatural efficiency of a line that distinguishes the moral case for each—probably the rarest thing in atom bomb fiction, or at least atom bomb cinema—doing so through what amounts to nothing more than the audible em-dash and the slightly brittle desperate tone Murphy takes when he adds "and Nagasaki" during his devastating encounter with a black-eyed demon version of Harry Truman (Gary Oldman), whose outright villainy is a rupturing departure from the naturalism and empathy of literally every other character in the film, even the actual "villain.")
It is embedded—but never lost—within a film that isn't really about relitigating the bomb, or necessarily even exploring the contradictions and fascinations of J. Robert Oppenheimer despite him being the inspiration for it, but a kind of operatic retelling of a many-sided event, which is where it starts to really remind you of Dunkirk, which had no human anchor and no dialogue whatsoever that I remember, so it was maybe a little more obvious there. I've said the movie has no scenes—it is effectively one giant montage highlighting very specific moments (not always historically key moments) and psychological states pertaining to the development of the atomic bomb or the development of Robert Oppenheimer (same thing), and all of it is given extraordinarily loud voice by Ludwig Goransson's best-score-of-the-year contender (and I'm fooling you by calling it a contender), springing between ethereal electronic tonalities, corny-but-likeable Geiger counter noises, and doom-laden orchestral dirges, all so high up in the mix that a major fraction, perhaps a majority, of the film's dialogue suffers from being drowned out. I don't think Nolan, in his zeal to basically make movies without audible dialogue, has done it better to date—Dunkirk, maybe, but the difficulty and potential to annoy people was much lower there—and there's cleverness in simply utilizing a scenario where there's lots of dialogue, and you expect lots of dialogue defining its chewy philosophical conversations, but where you know the broad strokes already, so most of the time the content of the dialogue actually doesn't matter. (Just to hazard a guess, they're probably discussing atomic bombs.) For the small amount of dialogue that does, the score can respectfully stay out of its way. But that is a very small amount, after all, so Goransson is allowed to wail away for hours, even getting louder and louder, right up until we reach Trinity, where it's become nerve-wracking in its desire to overwhelm your senses and intellect—and the sound cuts, hard, into crushing, horrible silence, an admission that even the most potent thing this film has to offer, its sound, cannot capture the birth of the apocalyptic new age that our hero has brought into this world.
If that suggests that Oppenheimer loses momentum afterward, that's correct; it practically derails itself, maybe even intentionally (but probably not), and it's worth pointing that out, that there is an hour of movie still left to go. It's more a matter of that fifth half-hour, though, which maybe couldn't feel any other way, and it eventually finds a new groove, which is not a completely distinct groove—though I think it happens at roughly the moment that van Hoytema's "shallow focus that communicates Oppenheimer's own shallow focus" makes the leap to "insanely shallow focus, so that the narrowest cross-section of Murphy's face is literally the only legible part of the frame"—but always a continued abrasive collage of moments and fragments that I guess sort of look like scenes, and are probably labeled such in the screenplay for convenience's sake, but, again, I don't like the term. It is three hours of evocation, never much less abstract, truthfully, than the completely abstract images of, like, electron shells that Oppenheimer imagines; it's evocative in really slippery ways, however, that activate your emotions, without ever telling you what those emotions should be, and seemingly designed to not let you even quite figure them out for yourself, so that it unsettles you in a way that "nuclear war is unhealthy for flowers and other living things" would not, by itself, accomplish.
*Oops, I forgot about the film-starting epigram reference to Prometheus, which is done at a level of just hideous gaudiness.
**Scarecrow rules, but his silly cameo in The Dark Knight isn't actually better than Heath Ledger's Joker.