Christopher Nolan's biographical drama "Oppenheimer" explores the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb.
The film is split into three parts, delving into Oppenheimer's backstory, his time on the Manhattan Project, and the fallout after World War 2.
Nolan raises ethical questions about the creation of the atomic bomb and Oppenheimer's struggle to reconcile with his actions.
The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a controversial one. Dubbed “the father of the atomic bomb,” he played a part in arguably one of humanity’s most harrowing moments. Naturally, there was a fear that Christopher Nolan’s biographical drama Oppenheimer would paint out the man (Cillian Murphy) as a poor martyr for a greater cause, but the director focuses on the story through a wider lens, exploring the elements of sadness, anger, scientific curiosity, and question of morality that it merits.
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Essentially, Oppenheimer is split into three parts. The first explores his backstory and belief system, showcasing Oppenheimer as a brilliant theoretical physicist but a fallible man. At times, Nolan does fall into the tropish trap of portraying him as a savant who struggles to relate to the world around him, which is disappointing since the real-life person did some questionable things to his friends and loved ones. The second portion of the film is dedicated to his time on the Manhattan Project and the building of the bomb with others. It’s here that ethical questions start to be raised about what is being created. The final act focuses on the fallout after World War 2. While Oppenheimer is billed a hero, he struggles to reconcile with what he did and how it didn’t change the world in the way he perceived it.
The film opens by comparing what Oppenheimer did to Prometheus’ actions. The God of Fire stole fire from Olympus and gave it to humans. In doing so, though, he helped humanity to destroy itself. It’s easy to see the connection here. However, one can’t help but also equate what Oppenheimer did to Ozymandias’ actions from Watchmen. The man known as Adrian Veidt believed the path to peace would require major sacrifice. In the same way, Oppenheimer convinces himself that the power and destruction of the atomic bomb will bring about peace – and the end will justify the means. Ultimately, it proves that while the scientific part of his mind is brilliant, he didn’t understand humanity at all. He made a gross miscalculation and weaponised us in the worst way imaginable instead.
Nolan doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable feelings and thought-provoking questions this story provides. What is chilling is how the filmmaker captures the ruthless and uncaring nature of how those chasing for power utilised the event for their own personal needs and gains. It poses a question that humanity will need to face in its own reckoning: Who truly benefits from acts of war?
From a cinematography perspective, Oppenheimer is art. Between Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, they have produced a spellbinding visual masterpiece. There are transitional, metaphorical shots in this movie that hark back to Francis Ford Coppolla and Michael Ballhaus’ visuals in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as each shot tells its own subliminal story. Ludwig Göransson’s score is equally important here, as the composer chooses the appropriate moments to let the beats and rumbles add to the tension and when to employ the power of silence to drive home a poignant message.
In terms of the performances, Murphy is outstanding as the complicated Oppenheimer. He encapsulates the complexities of a man wrestling with his own ambition, morality, and dedication to science. Murphy has a fine catalogue of films and television shows, but this might be his opus as he commits everything to it. Emily Blunt delivers a powerful performance as Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty. Much like Murphy, she doesn’t shirk away from the character’s failings and misgivings, embracing the raw and emotional nature of their relationship.
Matt Damon is another standout as Leslie Groves. His character is complex, as he is much smarter than he lets on, and the audience never quite knows where his allegiance lies. What is clear, though, is that he does respect Oppenheimer in the end. Also, it would be remiss to not mention Robert Downey Jr.’s tour de force as Lewis Strauss. For the first time in a long time, Downey gets an opportunity to stretch the acting muscles and show how he has an impressive range that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Without getting into spoilers, or for those who don’t know the history, let’s say he has a fascinating arc here.
While Oppenheimer is three-hours long, it doesn’t feel that way. From the first minute, the film draws the viewers in and takes everyone on a philosophical journey about humanity’s potential to create and destroy. Nolan doesn’t spoon feed the audience into telling us what to believe or what is the right answer. Instead, he simply presents a question that’s up to us to answer in the end. Without a shadow of a doubt, Oppenheimer is a strong contender for best film of 2023 and probably of recent times.
Sergio Pereira is a prolific and recognised journalist and writer from Johannesburg, South Africa. His expertise encompasses the topics of comic books, film, television, and video games. For over 16 years, he has built up his reputation and knowledge in entertainment journalism by writing for and learning from the world's largest publications.
Sergio is also an accredited Rotten Tomatoes reviewer and has interviewed numerous celebrities, such as Andy Serkis, Ben Barnes, Idris Elba, Letitia Wright and Frank Miller. He is the author of the highly rated fantasy comedy novel The Not-So-Grim Reaper and numerous short stories. In addition, he is the co-writer of the South African crime drama film The Lifesaver. As a regular columnist, he contributes to Looper, Grunge, Screen Rant, Ranker, CBR, SYFY WIRE, IGN Africa, Thought Catalog and Fortress of Solitude.
For Sergio, all he wants in life is to see the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles eclipse the Justice League as the greatest heroes of all time. Then, he will sleep peacefully.