Oppenheimer (2023) Review

Christopher Nolan’s distinct storytelling method, stretching way back to his 1998 black-and-white indie feature Following, is among the key highlights that made his movies such a remarkable cinematic experience. Even his last mind-bending sci-fi Tenet, arguably his rare but fascinating misfire manages to find a new way to tell his story in a time-inversion manner.

And not to forget, his 2017 World War II epic Dunkirk, which marked Nolan’s first movie based on a true event. He eschewed the conventional narrative structure of what could have been a typical war drama into an intriguing story told in a multiple-perspective, non-linear style. Which brings me to Nolan’s latest film, Oppenheimer. This is the second time he chose to tackle a fact-based story revolving around World War II but one that isn’t action-packed in its execution. It was more dialogue-heavy and frankly, I have to admit it got me worried whether the talky Oppenheimer can sustain my interest throughout its mammoth 3-hour runtime.

Well, the good news is, Nolan paces his film like a psychological horror-thriller while favouring his signature non-linear narrative to alternate his story between the scenes filmed in washed-out colour and atmospheric black and white. His decision of using IMAX cameras for such a movie that is more words than action may sound like a gimmick luring the audience to shell out extra for a ticket. But Nolan, together with the help of his regular cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, successfully turns the densely packed biographical drama into an engrossing cinematic event.

The movie immerses me right from the get-go as Nolan, who also wrote the screenplay, focuses on the inner psyche of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the New York-born theoretical physicist who would later become “the father of the atomic bomb”. He shot Murphy mostly in close-ups as a means of capturing the psychological and emotional intimacy of how his character thinks, reacts and feels. We follow Oppenheimer’s character arc from his younger days as an academic student mastering physics and how he first met the famous Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) during the 1920s era. His career eventually takes off in the ’30s, notably after he influenced more students in quantum mechanics.

Robert Downey Jr. (middle) as Lewis Strauss in "Oppenheimer" (2023)

The story gets more interesting when Nolan finally introduces General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), the leader behind the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. He nominates Oppenheimer to spearhead the top-secret project and that is, creating the world’s first atomic bomb. It was a massive undertaking that Oppenheimer and his selected team of physicists worked around the clock to piece everything together. Here, Nolan goes as far as detailing the process as they spend their time talking, debating and testing their theories to materialise the creation of the atomic bomb. I like how he builds up slowly but surely as if the clock is ticking, leading to the eventual big moment of the Trinity nuclear test. Ever a fan of all things practical, Nolan’s insistence to shoot the atomic bomb explosion without CGI is a sight to behold. And watching this on IMAX brings that ultimate experience, thanks to his meticulous use of incredible visuals and sound. A loud and deafening sound, to be exact as I witnessed the scene unfold, complete with a mushroom cloud and a big explosion illuminating the night sky. But interestingly enough, Nolan doesn’t restrict himself to just showing us the big bang moment but also depicting the astonishment of the characters during the nuclear test, particularly Oppenheimer in a mix of total silence.

The movie also shifted to Oppenheimer’s personal life every now and then from his affair with communist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh in a striking supporting turn, despite only showing up in a few scenes) to his marriage to Emily Blunt’s temperamental and alcoholic Kitty. These subplots are necessary to mirror Oppenheimer’s work on the atomic bomb, both of which shared similar qualms of morally questionable and unethical consequences.

The cast is top-notch with Cillian Murphy finally landing a leading role in Christopher Nolan’s film after playing second fiddle since Batman Begins in 2005. His performance is worthy of an Oscar nomination, easily one of the best actings I’ve ever seen this year. Murphy’s most pivotal moment comes in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing — a scene that showcased all his conflicting emotions and guilt-ridden expressions, even though he is credited as the national hero who ends World War II. The rest of the actors, namely Robert Downey Jr. in one of his finest roles as the deceitful U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (A.E.C.) founder Lewis Strauss and Matt Damon’s commanding supporting turn as General Leslie Groves.

As much as I enjoyed the dramatic intensity of Oppenheimer for the bulk of its three-hour length, the movie eventually drags in the final hour. The latter sees Nolan trying to go full procedural with a mix of political and courtroom drama, which can be evidently seen in two respective hearings on separate occasions involving Oppenheimer and Strauss. The movie does have its few worthwhile moments but at the expense of prolonging the scenes to the point it feels somewhat punishing.

Still, Oppenheimer largely overcomes the aforementioned flaw with terrific actings all around, coupled with Nolan’s knack for unique storytelling and aural-visual showcase. Not to mention the praises also go to Hoyte van Hoytema, as well as Ludwig Göransson’s riveting score and Jennifer Lame’s mostly sharp editing.