Life is a choice, a rather bold statement considering that, too often, our subjective perspective does not lend itself very well to making a choice. Living with the consequences of those choices, and the resultant fallout, is where we most often doubt ourselves; “What could have been?” enters our conscience. So complex is our vantage point that we miss the bigger picture. Director Christopher Nolan does not miss the big picture in his latest, Oppenheimer.
Nolan, who wrote the script based on “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” serves up a complex story for a complicated time, as Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy in an exquisite turn, seeks to answer several pervasive quantitative and qualitative questions, not only about his life leading up to the Manhattan Project, the development of an atomic bomb ahead of competing world powers in the 1940s but also answers to theoretical questions following his attempts to enter into the political fallout after the use of the atomic bomb, realizing too late the bigger picture.
Oppenheimer is itself the culmination of choices in technology, past and present. Nolan’s deft hand delivers one of the most damning stories of 2023, and it does so with pathos for Oppenheimer’s predicament, the ethos for his decisions, and logos for his standing throughout the film. If you’ll forgive my maudlin sense of humor, the trinity of these three pieces of logic culminates in a strongly defined character for Murphy to latch on to. Similar to the actor’s take on the decisions facing Capa from Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, Murphy eschews an intellect in his eyes; they never raise questions about his take on Oppenheimer’s integrity or loyalty, portraying a studied thought. Oppenheimer was a flawed human being. When push came to shove, he took it and stood proudly.
Emily Blunt plays Kitty Oppenheimer, his wife. Blunt was exceptional support for Oppenheimer. However, the story makes it feel like even Kitty had trouble reading or getting through to him. Matt Damon, who I understand broke a promise to his wife over Oppenheimer, is Leslie Groves, a no-nonsense military man responsible for the Manhattan Project. The initial exchange between Oppenheimer and Groves is rich with dry humor; Murphy and Damon play the conversation for what it is, while Nolan gives us a fair sense of what drives both men.
Robert Downey Jr said in the press before the strike that he believes this is his best performance. He is not wrong. As Lewis Strauss, Downey’s performance deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination, it is that strong. Through the complex narrative structure, Nolan’s handling of the relationship between Oppenheimer and Strauss builds confidence in what I would call one of the ten best films of 2023.
Nolan and cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema chose to shoot Oppenheimer with 65mm IMAX and 65mm large format cameras, with the finished presentation specifically intended for IMAX. Oppenheimer is the first IMAX lensed production to use black-and-white analog photography for select sequences. The technical results in 70mm IMAX are jaw-dropping. Choosing the photochemical in place of pixels results in the minimal, however noticeable, inclusion of CGI elements, with most visual effects being optically shot. Suffice it to say Nolan’s choice to stick within the analog realm of filmmaking only enhances the experience.
One of Nolan’s innate gifts is a sense of time within his movies; Oppenheimer carries on with that tradition exceptionally. The three-hour run time did not feel like three hours. Oppenheimer’s life, decisions, and the hill he chose to stand on are secure, as Nolan balances the ebbs and flows of creating the bomb and its implications in a new world order. Ludwig Göransson’s lush score provides a thematic undercurrent, balancing the acting, pacing, and cinematography with ethos, pathos, and logos.
Oppenheimer is Christopher Nolan’s Oliver Stone moment and is a perfect trinity in technology for a modern film, one that I’m pleased to say is exceptional in its execution and the message it shares with the world. It fits handily into the “Barbenheimer” complex that it faces on its opening weekend.
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Screenplay by Christopher Nolan, based on “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherrie
Starring Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh
R, 180 minutes, Universal Pictures, Syncopy/Atlas Entertainment