He Dropped a Bomb on Us

‘Oppenheimer,’ Christopher Nolan’s majestic, grand-statement masterpiece about the reluctant father of the atomic age

A majestic, mournful entertainment that’s as serious as a heart attack, ‘Oppenheimer’ is Christopher Nolan’s bullseye shot at Grand Statement cinema that’s about nothing less than human annihilation. It’s a meaty message movie brimming with Big Ideas and Weighty Themes, full of intense debates and furrowed-brow discussions, which also still uses its sinewy cinematic form to thrill and awe. Paced with a crisp, gripping efficiency for all of its eye-popping three-hour length, the filmmaker’s first biopic focuses its subjective eye on physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), whom the press coronated as the “father of the atomic bomb.” He would be wracked with guilt the rest of his life for the quantum leap he unleashed, and then pilloried and slandered for voicing such anti-nuke agony—fully embodying his nickname as the modern Prometheus.

OPPENHEIMER★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey, Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh 
Running time: 180 min

But buyer, beware: ‘Oppenheimer’ is not a popcorn-picture confection. This dense examination/cross-examination of the man whose impactful deeds inarguably ended World War Two and started the Cold War is the story of a genius, after all, told with keen insight and an earnest ability to parcel out an arsenal of facts. Any movie that name-checks Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, T.S. Eliot, John Dunne, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx expects a baseline level of cultural engagement from its audience.

And those paradigm-shifting canonical brethren are just the comparatively low-hanging fruit of its liberal-arts sophistication. Come prepared for a heady ride, with blink-or-you’ll-miss-them cameos from the superstars of modern physics that few people even know anyway. Is that foundational Danish physicist Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) commanding a near-Beatlemania fervor in the corridors of 1920s European academia? Who’s that walking with Einstein in Princeton’s woods with a short, single line of dialogue—could it be Austrian logician Kurt Gödel (James Urbaniak), fresh from fleeing the Nazis? And what’s that we see for a hot second behind pioneering nuclear physicist Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett)—the prototype for a particle accelerator? Recognize them or not, these are the people whose passionate work effectively birthed the modern world as we know it.

Nolan uses his impressive stable of Hollywood stars—and enough recognizable character actors—for good reason, not as stunt casting but as a shorthand for representing so many significant players in America’s race to build the world’s first atom bomb. When Matt Damon pops up as no-nonsense, bullshit-intolerant Brigadier General Leslie Groves, you know he’s going to be kind of a big deal. What else would you expect for the man who built the Pentagon and who the government has now charged with managing a kiloton-capable death machine?

L to R: Cillian Murphy is J. Robert Oppenheimer, Olli Haaskivi is Edward Condon, Matt Damon is Leslie Groves, and Dane Dehaan is Kenneth Nichols in OPPENHEIMER, written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan.

His most significant act: insisting that charismatic academic Oppenheimer be Scientific Director of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. Government’s shoot-the-moon nuclear weapons development program. Germany had split the uranium particle in 1938, and now, in 1943, Oppenheimer knew time—and the right mix of physicists and engineers—was critically important. One measure of cold comfort: he believed Hitler’s own prejudice against quantum mechanics, a still-pioneering discipline that he considered “Jewish science, ” would hobble him.

“It’s paradoxical, and yet it works,” Oppenheimer enthuses to the first of his growing students at Berkeley when he explains the contradictory nuances of the burgeoning discipline, in which so much was still unproven. “My work is so…abstract,” he admits, implicitly acknowledging his yearning for a physical manifestation of his ideas. “All I have is theory.” No surprise that his intrepid drive, as well as his intuitive orchestration of idiosyncratic scientific personalities, were the deciding factors in the mercurial brainiacs’ eventual explosive success.

What’s still astounding is the government’s ability to realize his vision. Oppenheimer knew they needed an isolated facility: he recommends his beloved New Mexico, specifically the barren area known as Los Alamos. He also knew that, in order to recruit the best and the brightest, he would need to have people bring their wives and children. So Groves builds him an entire town from scratch—houses, churches, hospitals, telephone poles, power lines and all.

Three years, 4,000 people, and $2 billion later, Oppenheimer, Groves, and his men—all of them were men, by the way, bitterly supported by brilliant, resigned women sidelined due simply to their sex—are standing in front of a tower with “the gadget” in a pre-dawn test to change the world. The “I am become death, destroyer of worlds” detonation, dramatized with the full force of IMAX’s 70mm image and sound, is palpably terrifying, one of many choice moments throughout the film when Nolan uses his immersive audio design and crystal-sharp visual-effects splendor to convey Oppenheimer’s emotional anxiety.

The real struggle, which Nolan interlaces with Oppenheimer’s 1920s-1940s narrative, is the 1959 Congressional hearings for Admiral Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), a founding commissioner of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and a political operative nonpareil who envies, admires, and resents the heady brilliance of the people with whom he surrounds himself. Strauss is up for Secretary of Commerce in Eisenhower’s cabinet, and the hearings hinge on the scientific community’s estimation of his character.

The conservative and pro-nukes Strauss knows that the liberal peacenik-convert Oppenheimer would never support him, which is why he masterminded a tribunal to question Oppenheimer’s communist sympathies and loyalty to the United States. Destroying Oppenheimer’s credibility is the key to Strauss’s political survival. Nolan toggles between the tense, heady days of the Manhattan Project, the 1954 tribunal, and the 1959 Congressional hearings, braiding the three events in ways that illuminate each other as much as they do elevate the anguish that all the characters endure and inflict in equal measure.

Not one of them has impeccable scruples: despite their heady acumen, they are all very messy, very fallible people, who fall prey to petty slights, haughty snubs, unbridled arrogance and wounded pride. Oppenheimer, though hardly a saint, is the most sympathetic, if only because Nolan conveys his tortured world with such clarity. What makes Nolan’s film ultimately reverberate so intensely is the notion that such fundamentally emotional people created the world’s deadliest weapons. Another notion: of course they did. How human, the impulse to both create and destroy. “We’re all simple souls, I guess,” Oppenheimer murmurs at one point. More prescient was his famous remark before they pushed that big red button. “Lord, these affairs are hard on the heart.”


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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

One thought on “He Dropped a Bomb on Us

  • July 23, 2023 at 3:25 pm

    Great review and great film. More needs to be written about how discussion of Nolan’s magnificent effort has been almost yolked in the middle brow MSM to the relatively trite – in an existential sense – film Barbie. I would love to hear what Nolan really thinks of this.
    “Barbenheimmer” is indeed a thing and it deliberately(?) lessens the important impact Oppenheimer could have. No need to spook the horses. During our last Cold War in the 1980s and 1990s there used to be thousands in the streets protesting against the insanity of nuclear proliferation. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, these days we are the closest to nuclear war since the inception of their Doomsday Clock (See constant escalation of Ukraine war and the continued pushing of the envelope on Taiwan). It’s now 90 seconds to “midnight” or the end of the Earth. The closest the Doomsday Clock has ever been set to armageddon. But… Hey! Look at this clip of Barbie’s face melting!


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