Oppenheimer was good — actually, it was terrific. Christopher Nolan, an undeniable master filmmaker whose work should be discussed until the end of time, tells the epic tale of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who invented the atomic bomb — or at least led the Manhattan Project that created it.
I went into Oppenheimer the movie knowing a good deal about Oppenheimer the man. I knew he dropped the first A-bomb in the desert of New Mexico, had plenty of concerns about how the world powers would use his weapons, and that his security clearance was not renewed during the anti-communist panic of the early 1950s. Also, his wife and mistress were both communists, and he wore a cool-looking fedora. Nolan, who also wrote the screenplay, smartly weaves all these elements into the film.
Cillian Murphy, best known as the lead in Netflix’s brilliant Peaky Blinders, portrays Oppenheimer with an intense, horrific, and slightly moving depth. To say Oppenheimer was “complex” is definitely an understatement — he built the bomb while despising its potential, associated himself with communists even when he was not one, and opposed the continued research of the scientific field he helped establish in the United States. Murphy shows all these contradictions in his performance.
Murphy is supported by a massive cast of notable, talented actors: Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, Jason Clarke — the list goes on. Even familiar favorites like ex-Nickelodeon star Josh Peck, The Boys’ Jack Quaid, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s Devon Bostick make appearances. Hey, remember that guy who was in that thing you liked from a few years back? Well, chances are that he’s in it too.
All actors give convincing performances and bring believability to Nolan’s telling of Oppenheimer’s life. And that is the film’s greatest strength: observing the complexities of the man and all those around him. In the film’s best and most memorable scene, Oppenheimer attempts to give a rousing speech to his Manhattan Project colleagues following the surrender of Japan. Despite being heavily conflicted regarding the bomb’s use on Japanese civilians, Oppenheimer forces himself to praise the destruction he helped create. However, Oppenheimer’s mind flashes with visions of his audience burnt to ash by the power of the nuclear weapon he unleashed.
In scenes like the one previously mentioned, Nolan’s editing and direction keep the film moving forward, never lingering for too long. However, with that said, my one major issue with Oppenheimer is its length, which is exactly three hours long.
Now, three hours seems like a manageable amount of time, especially when dealing with a biographic epic complete with mushroom-cloud explosions and intriguing history. But, for a film that spends most of its time with its characters in dimly lit rooms discussing their lives, politics, philosophies, and work, it can feel a bit tiring when the two-hour mark comes around.
Furthermore, Oppenheimer’s score, composed by Ludwig Goransson, creates a non-stop aura of tension and dread. However, its placement in relatively calm scenes of domestic conversation sometimes fails to complement the tone and gets old on the listener’s ears.
Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (ACE) behind the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance, needs no notes. However, his character’s purpose in the film is unclear at points.
While Strauss is an essential figure in the film and Oppenheimer’s professional career, his first appearance in the timeline following the successful testing of the A-bomb makes Nolan’s decision to have much of the plot told from a flashback perspective during his failed 1959 Commerce Secretary confirmation hearings bewildering.
Finally, the final hour is riddled with slowly-paced courtroom drama scenes as Oppenheimer fights for his security clearance in 1954. While well-written and acted, Oppenheimer’s last act drags on for far too long, all while leaving details regarding Strauss’ motivations and some historical context unclear to the audience.
Standalone, the film’s pacing, plot, scenes, and score work fine. Yet, when gelled together, the occasional dissonance that stems from the result does not sit well — especially for a three-hour epic.
However, despite the film’s flaws, I in no way discourage moviegoers from seeing this film. Nolan’s direction is great, the acting is excellent, and the sound mixing and editing are flawless — I could go on and on with praise.
Those positives outweigh the film’s imperfections. Oppenheimer is genuinely a movie event worth paying money to see. If you have not made the journey to the theaters yet, I only advise you to be prepared for three hours — three hours I believe you will enjoy.
The double-feature…and why you shouldn’t do it
If I had to rate my experience watching both Barbie and Oppenheimer back-to-back, I would give it a solid 10 — well, at least the idea of it.
Seeing movies double feature-style may seem like a cinephile’s dream: an entire evening spent dazzled by a flickering projector and a silver screen.
But, when Barbie came to a close, I wanted to go home. By the time Oppenheimer was wrapping up, I struggled to stay awake.
Do I regret it? No. I deserve my “I did the ‘Barbenheimer’ challenge and all I got was this lousy t-shirt” t-shirt.
But do I recommend it? Absolutely not!
See both Barbie and Oppenheimer with open minds, open eyes, and most importantly, open wallets — just do it one movie at a time.