In Oppenheimer’s opening seconds, acclaimed writer/director Christopher Nolan tells us of the story of Prometheus, the god who stole fire from Mount Olympus to give to mankind and was, in turn, punished. Almost in the same breath, we are introduced to two interwoven storylines, one from the perspectives of physicist and “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” J. Robert Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), a businessman and former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, who is up for a Presidential cabinet position in 1958.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Nolan delivers an exemplary take on the modern biopic. His pace, especially in the first two acts, flows beautifully, taking what could be dry, scientific jargon and making it sleek and understandable.
His trust as a director is fully in Cillian Murphy’s hands. He plays Oppenheimer with a calculated stare and quick-wit, his blue orbs piercing your soul as he contemplates his own. He not only physically embodies this part with hollow cheeks and often chapped lips, but the layers of complexity he adds to every look, stance, and line only adds to his brilliance.
The two storylines, one in black and white, eventually paint a broader picture of Oppenheimer’s youth, his ties to the communist party, professorship, and work on the Manhattan project. Robert Downey Jr.’s take on the divisive and implosive Strauss is a refreshing turn for him after his work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Matt Damon appears throughout the film, giving a very patriotic performance as Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, who oversaw Oppenheimer’s work on the Manhattan project. We see “Oppie’s” relationship with known communist psychologist Jean Tatlock (a physically bare and emotionally vulnerable Florence Pugh) and their eventual breakup due to his marriage to Kitty Oppenheimer (an underused pistol of a performance from Emily Blunt).
Nolan’s craftsmanship has never been better. His muted tones of blue and green create a sense of forbidding moodiness that follows Cillan Murphy across grounded set pieces. Everything you want visually in a Nolan film is there. The production value, though not flashy, feels lush and lived in. He visually captures Oppenheimer’s mindset, showing us electric particles and waves and explosions early on in the film’s runtime.
The final act is where Oppenheimer falters. The security clearance hearing lags too long and stalls the film’s momentum. Nolan rushes towards a finish that feels unearned after nearly three hours. Though the primary focus is Oppenheimer’s personal identity and legacy, major holes are left by the director’s lack of attention to his personal life. His relationship to his wife feels glossed over and the characterization of Jean Tatlock is reduced to a neglected, depressed mistress instead of a woman struggling with her sexuality and mental health.
A-list, Oscar-winning actors get bit parts in Nolan’s script, reducing the likes of Rami Malek, Dane DeHaan, and Josh Harnett with not much to do. Nolan does not combine characters at all, something that I don’t always like but is severely needed here. He often flashes back to the face the speaker is referencing in order to remind his audience what’s going on. Despite this, the supporting performances that get a chance to shine, do. David Krumholtz, who plays the closest thing to a best friend Oppenheimer has, plays off of Murphy so well, you’ll be waiting for his next appearance.
There’s been much hype about Oppenheimer and how this could be Nolan’s magnum opus. While there’s too much unfulfilled ambition for this to be so, Murphy’s performance is one of a lifetime, and maybe it’s more his movie than his director’s. Though a looming figure in the scientific and political communities, J. Robert Oppenheimer is a person the average American only knows within the singular line in a history book. It’s Murphy, who gives the physicist humanity outside of Nolan’s great but heavy brushstrokes.
Oppenheimer opens in theaters on July 1st.