2023, R, 180 min. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Matt Damon, Rami Malek, Macon Blair, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Conti, Josh Hartnett, Dylan Arnold, David Dastmalchian, Benny Safdie, James Urbaniak, Gary Oldman.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., July 21, 2023

Christopher Nolan is obsessed with time. He has reversed it in Tenet, layered it in Inception, been adrift in it in Interstellar, and traveled through it at three different velocities in Dunkirk. He manipulates it both for characters and audiences with equal ease, but in Oppenheimer – his biography of the father of the atomic bomb – he does both simultaneously.

It's 1924, and a young J. Robert Oppenheimer quits Cambridge to study the new discipline of quantum physics in Germany: a decision that ultimately leads to him running the Manhattan Project, America's World War II rush to build a functioning atomic bomb. It's 1954, and Oppenheimer is in a small room in Washington, D.C., facing a kangaroo court predetermined to confirm suspicions that he was a Red. It is 1958, and commerce secretary nominee Lewis Strauss is facing a brutal Senate confirmation hearing over his advocacy for the now-disgraced Oppenheimer. These three interlocked narratives are sheathed within each other, information being recontextualized backward and forward, entangled at a quantum level.

What bonds them is Oppenheimer, scintillatingly and sympathetically portrayed by Murphy in a performance of breathtaking understatement and perspicacity. Without ever resorting to exposition or flagellant self-examination, he probes the complexities of a man who saw the workings of the cosmos on an almost instinctual level (one must wonder if Nolan, who seems to have a similar relationship with temporal mechanics as a narrative tool, feels a certain kinship). Yet he's not a dry academic, or the cryptic tool of the military-industrial complex as which he has been caricatured. Oppenheimer is presented as a revolutionary, part of an interwar era of music and art and philosophy and science that was redefining existence. Yet he's never portrayed as a solitary genius burdened with eureka moments. Instead, Murphy gently inhabits a man who saw problems at macro and micro levels simultaneously, and so was able to understand both the grand plan of the Manhattan Project and also how to put people in place to deploy their own genius.

Nolan's script (adapted from Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's epic 2005 biography, American Prometheus) truly centers on Oppenheimer's relationships. That includes his penchant for affairs, such as the catastrophic carnal connection with Jean Tatlock (a furious and tormented Pugh) and the more scandalous one with Kitty Harrison (Blunt, capturing the steel that it must have taken to contend with Oppenheimer). Swirling around them is a perfect ensemble cast of researchers, many of them icons of science: Branagh as Bohr, Conti heartbreaking as the aged Einstein, and a lugubrious performance by Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems) as Edward Teller. The brilliance goes down to the tiniest moments: There's an undeniable delicious charm to having Venture Brothers actor James Urbaniak as logician Kurt Gödel, or knowing that having Jack Quaid just playing bongos will indicate that he's Richard Feynman, the future physicist of the beat generation.

The people around Oppenheimer are his strength and his weakness, as Nolan's script subtly indicates how his pre-war political naivety and basic humanism were used against him by Hoover's commie-smashing FBI. Grand betrayal is an elemental component of the story, and this being Nolan, that cinema is indeed grand. Yes, the Trinity test sequence is a nail-biting feat of cinematic tension, but he deploys the same epic filmmaking to the smallest of moments. He subtly recalibrates how the audience sees Oppenheimer's world, with seemingly constant particulate matter, whether it be dust or snow, drifting across vistas, highlighting the micro as part of the macro. Oppenheimer's visions are as ear-shattering and eye-scorching as the Trinity test itself.

But most importantly, Oppenheimer charts the man as he goes from seeing his theories of electrons and neutrinos become an inferno of reality. It's all power: not just nuclear, but political and interpersonal, as Oppenheimer goes from the cover of Time magazine to internal exile. Rarely have the highs and lows of politics been so astoundingly charted. The slowly revealed duet between Murphy and Downey Jr. as Strauss is even more enthralling because the pair – both utterly masterful in their roles – rarely shares the screen. But in a way, Oppenheimer is like atomic physics: Each tiny spark interlocks to create a massive, breathtaking, terrifying conflagration.

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Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan, Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Matt Damon, Rami Malek, Macon Blair, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Conti, Josh Hartnett, Dylan Arnold, David Dastmalchian, Benny Safdie, James Urbaniak, Gary Oldman

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