Christopher Nolan’s three-hour portrayal of “Oppenheimer,” is a surreal artistic achievement, examining the beauty and horrors of a complicated legacy and an even more complicated man through proficient acting, masterful editing, and a diligently crafted biopic that will surely be studied for decades.
“I am Death, destroyer of worlds,” spoke the father of the atomic bomb in the silence of astonishment. Amongst an audience of stars, a pillar of fire shook the very Earth, lighting the sky ablaze as if it were the first flame Prometheus gifted to rival the Gods. An instance felt like a lifetime, and when the smoke had eclipsed the flash of Armageddon, all that was left was the American applause of three years’ work on the Manhattan Project, welcoming doom yet to come.
It’s no understatement to call this scene describing the Trinity Test, and this film overall, a timeless masterpiece, presenting a flawed personality in a riveting stronghold of storytelling that’s been told for generations — and will be for many more.
Based on the biography “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” Nolan directs three distinct stories as a complex puzzle, seamlessly pieced together to represent the chaos and greatness of Oppenheimer’s mind. Each story is colorized and directed uniquely to distinguish different points of Oppenheimer’s life, representing his varying perception of the world. From his story of uncertainty throughout the Manhattan Project, to protecting his legacy post-war, to a political thriller amongst his colleagues — it’s a theme of ethics, guilt and betrayal.
It is a film that requires patience and attention to reward the audience. “Oppenheimer” is not shy to enter exhilarating scientific discussions and thought-provoking yet flawed moralism, nor is it shy to connect large plot points with subtle dialogue. This film is strictly about Oppenheimer and his interpretations of his world and does not give extensive screen time to characters outside Lewis Strauss, who may be one of Robert Downey, Jr.’s strongest roles since Iron Man. However, every actor and actress played their roles stupendously and without waste, so much so that I’m now considering reading several biographies to learn more about these profound characters. Talents like Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, David Dastmalchin, Dane DeHann, Tom Conti, Emily Blunt and Kenneth Branagh all stood out remarkably. Each character is independent, entering and leaving the story freely with personal autonomy, not being subjects of pure plot progression and giving a greater sense of world-building.
Character development is limited, and it actually serves the story well for the supporting cast to not develop in a fulfilling way. Reflecting the narcissism of Oppenheimer himself, the intricacies of people didn’t seem to matter that much to the narrative. The only exceptions were Strauss and Conti’s character, Albert Einstein, who played a smaller yet more profound role than I expected as a sage and, to some extent, character foreshadowing for Oppenheimer.
Performances aside, “Oppenheimer” also did strongly with cinematography. The film is distinctly nostalgic of Nolan’s other works like “Dunkirk,” “Tenet,” and the “Dark Knight” trilogy — however, Hoyte Van Hoytema goes above and beyond to enhance the biopic with visceral depth and immersive sensory overload. Both the angles and sound design tell their own story, and neither are restricted in their demonstration. Oppenheimer as a character is emotionally repressed, relying on audience interpretation to decipher his thoughts, which are guided by intentional yet sporadic sound choices. In contrast, it feels subtlein reflecting the personality of Oppenheimer. Each sound, even the silence, conveys a message or emotion to guide the audiences in synergizing with his masked anxiety and his stoic uncertainty.
I must acknowledge that not everybody will enjoy this film. At its base, it’s a controversial historical spotlight with half its stakes spoiled by anyone who’s taken basic American history. It’s almost entirely dialogue driven by a protagonist who isn’t relatable to most audiences, and while it’s very intelligent and engaging, it will not provide any action attributed to most blockbuster expectations. Not to mention, three hours is demanding, especially if you’re not invested in the history or drama by the end of the first act. Many might also find Nolan’s effort to portray women in Oppenheimer’s story as lackluster as they’re one-dimensional like his previous works, though in this case it can be more subjective to reflect the social perspective of its time. It also gives too many subtle details — a strange complaint, I understand — by leaving breadcrumbs to a larger world Oppenheimer never explores to perhaps communicate that he’s fixated on his own world.
Overall “Oppenheimer” is outstanding and thunderous, genuinely respecting the source material with tasteful artistry and career-defining performances. This review does little justice to the exposition and mastery of “Oppenheimer,” and is a required viewing for anyone interested in how our world was forever changed by the atomic bomb.