Oppenheimer (2023) Film Review, a movie written and directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Casey Affleck, Kenneth Branagh, Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, Matthew Modine, Alex Wolff, Scott Grimes, Jason Clarke, Aiden Ehrenreich, Benny Safdie, Tony Goldwyn, Ted King and Jack Quaid.
Christopher Nolan has always been one of our most brilliant filmmakers and in his disturbing and riveting new picture, Oppenheimer, he takes the audience into the world of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) who was the “Father of the Atomic Bomb.” Oppenheimer is one of the most complex films ever made and is certainly full of powerful scenes and thoughtful character studies. This film should leave the viewer shaken by the events that transpire during the course of the movie. Oppenheimer is certainly going to receive some well-deserved Academy Award nominations, most notably one for Cillian Murphy as Best Actor because his portrayal of Oppenheimer is not only the actor’s best work to date but the best leading male performance so far this decade.
This film tells the story of Oppenheimer a man of grand ambitions who was inspired by Albert Einstein (Tom Conti). While a great deal of the film shuffles back and forth between time periods (and alternates between color and black and white), the movie isn’t always about the professional struggles of Oppenheimer. Nolan’s movie zeroes in on his personal relationships with two different women as well. One of them is a depressive woman named Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) who tempted Oppenheimer sexually even after he married Kitty (Emily Blunt). One powerful scene has Kitty tending to her young baby’s needs after Oppenheimer comes home not realizing how much Kitty has been doing while he’s been off trying to further his career. Blunt is outstanding in this scene.
Matt Damon (always reliable) plays Leslie Groves who was the head of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos which, during World War II, researched and developed nuclear weapons. Leslie helped bring Oppenheimer on board and developed a professional bond with the physicist throughout the years which was challenged years later. Robert Downey Jr. (in his best screen performance in years) serves as Lewis Strauss who was the head of the Atomic Energy Commission and became a barrier to Oppenheimer’s ability to find success later on in life.
The creation of the atomic bomb leads to devastating circumstances which end up haunting Oppenheimer later in the movie. Murphy really finds a way to inhabit the mind of this character transforming from an ambitious man to a haunted one who becomes overwhelmed with the pain and suffering which has been endured by his creation. Also particularly effective are the scenes with Blunt’s Kitty who stands by him through a lot. One can only wonder about what happened with the family construct Kitty had with her husband and children when the film hints at a lot of experienced sorrow that was faced by those involved. While the film shows a lot, it’s what Nolan doesn’t show that is even more interesting.
Florence Pugh is solid in her role as the other woman, Jean. When Oppenheimer brings her flowers, she grows frustrated and in one of the film’s few attempts at comic relief, she throws flowers he gives her away right after he gives them to her. We feel Jean’s sadness in a scene where Oppenheimer and Jean each sit on a chair naked. They seem distant despite the intimacy that brings them together.
Damon and Downey Jr. are at the top of their game here. Damon’s character so nonchalantly discusses potentially having a supporting character killed when that character walks away from his work at one point in the movie. Damon’s best scene comes when he must reveal if he would have granted Oppenheimer security clearance years after the atomic bomb was developed knowing what he knows now. Downey Jr. shines in a role that allows the actor to sink his teeth into it. As the character of opposition to Murphy’s Oppenheimer, Downey Jr. proves to be fierce on screen. Both characters are juxtaposed in an intelligent way which makes the audience question the psychology of both men who were skating on very thin ice right from the beginning of their interaction together. Strauss was initially selling shoes earlier in his life and that fact may have helped make him the wrecking ball he ultimately becomes.
When Oppenheimer’s ties to communism are brought into the plot, Nolan shines in terms of the way he examines the perception of how such ideas were viewed back then. Nolan has many talented performers sprinkled throughout the movie and the cinematography and music intensify the themes found throughout the film. Another great performance is the brief turn by Gary Oldman as President Truman who finally meets with Oppenheimer with disappointingly simplistic results. Truman doesn’t see the situation the same way Oppenheimer does and, also, seems to want to take credit in a way for what Oppenheimer has created.
Murphy is a shoo-in for a Best Actor Oscar nomination. As the lead character who drives the film, we feel Oppenheimer’s reactions to his own decisions which become frighteningly devastating to behold. There’s no easy answers for Oppenheimer once the bomb is dropped. He becomes a victim of his own ambitions and must suffer the consequences as a result. Even though he makes the cover of Time magazine, it’s at a great cost to his soul.
Nolan has crafted one of the most chilling portraits of the atomic bomb ever filmed. There have been films which have explored this territory before such as Fat Man and Little Boy but Oppenheimer plays on a much grander scale. Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer was truly a man who was a genius but, because of his ambitions, ended up in a place much different than he would have expected.
Of course, Oppenheimer has plenty of surprises such as characters who turn out to not be everything they appear to be. It never oversimplifies its complex politics and this movie will lead to thought-provoking conversations afterwards. They will not, however, be about the romance in the movie which is pretty cut-and-dry and doesn’t always feel on the mark. Sometimes, the great scenes between Blunt and Murphy feel like they could have led somewhere more interesting than they actually go. At three hours long, the movie also feels a bit bloated and could have easily been trimmed twenty minutes or so.
That being said, Oppenheimer is sure to get Nolan an Academy Award nomination for Best Director and deservedly so. At this point in the year, it looks like Cillian Murphy’s name could be called for Best Actor as well. How much one ultimately enjoys Nolan’s latest film depends on how interested in the topic one is. It’s all a lot to think about and feels a bit heavy for a summer movie. But, it’s expertly made and fascinating, nevertheless.
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