«Oppenheimer» 2023 Under the Microscope: A Review of Christopher Nolan’s Latest Film

From time immemorial, humanity, unable to explain certain things, created gods for themselves. They were born out of fear and ignorance, tenaciously clinging to life, transforming into religions that allowed, as the Strugatsky brothers said, “to know everything without truly understanding anything.”

But science advanced. And in the 20th century, which could have been a time of incredible achievements, people, divided by arbitrary lines on the map of one small planet, created a new god for themselves. A nuclear one. Cruel. Punishing. The only man-made deity capable of burning the world, which became engulfed in a new fear, a Sword of Damocles hanging over the planet.

Oppenheimer Poster 2023

The main protagonist of this newly minted deity became Robert Oppenheimer, a modest, introverted American, the leader of the infamous “Manhattan Project”, during which the first samples of nuclear weapons were created. Physicist Oppenheimer is a typical representation of a scientist from the World War II era. He was curious, and he only considered the consequences of his discoveries after they came to fruition.

The biographical drama “Oppenheimer” is a masterpiece by Christopher Nolan, a maestro of cinema with a unique worldview, who has undoubtedly crafted one of the best films of the third decade of the 21st century, intertwining a historical lesson, psychological drama, and detective thriller. The film has already become the highest-grossing work about World War II.

Nolan introduces viewers to the life journey of one of the most significant individuals in human history, offering resonant lessons about blind faith, envy, arrogance, obsession, and the quest for redemption, while exploring Oppenheimer’s brilliant mind and his legacy.

A script that might seem unbearably boring on paper comes alive on screen, making it nearly impossible to look away.

A detailed, grand portrayal of genius and solitude, of obsession and intense, self-destructive work that horrified its creator unfolds over three hours, by the end of which the viewer will feel drained, stirred, but also grateful.

A Little Bit of Information About the Movie

Nolan had long been fascinated by the idea of a film about the creator of the atomic bomb, and his plans quickly accelerated when, after filming “Tenet”, the renowned actor Robert Pattinson gratefully gifted the director a collection of Oppenheimer’s “The Open Mind” from 1955.

The filming of Oppenheimer 2023.

By the time the “Oppenheimer” script was created, the fear of nuclear war had already passed, but the director, born in 1969, vividly recalls living on the edge of panic during the Cold War era. And recent global events, with the nuclear threat intensifying, make this film incredibly relevant.

The haunting and majestic music of Ludwig Göransson (“Tenet”, “Venom”) blends beautifully with the work of production designer Ruth De Jong (“Yellowstone”), fully immersing the viewer in the atmosphere of the industrial town of Los Alamos, where three years of development finally led to the successful testing of the bomb (a respectful nod to sound designer Randy Torrens, who provided flawless sound to this terrifying moment).

A still from the movie Oppenheimer 2023

Part of the story is shot in black and white on wide-format IMAX film, developed specifically for this movie. The visual perfection is achieved by the work of the amazing cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema with his skill to capture details, give great importance to every frame, and create a full immersion effect.

The cast is impeccably chosen. Each, be it Robert Downey Jr., Gary Oldman, Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Jason Clarke, Emily Blunt, Rami Malek, Tom Conti, or Matt Damon, fits so seamlessly into the story that there’s no doubt – the roles were tailored specifically for each actor, considering their physicality, emotional depth, and demeanor.

Robert Downey Jr. convincingly played the role of AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss, Oppenheimer’s “arch-enemy,” working on discrediting him. Strauss views the scientist merely as a political burden at the onset of the Cold War.

The central character, Robert Oppenheimer himself, is beautifully portrayed by Cillian Murphy. He mesmerizes as a man caught in the grip of conflicting emotions and moral turmoil. A brilliant portrayal of a scientist experiencing triumph, firmly believing the bomb was necessary to end the war and demonstrate the destructive power of the new weapon.

Only years after the Manhattan Project he led created and used the bomb, which ended World War II and made Oppenheimer a symbol of the agonizing death of thousands in Japanese cities, tormented by guilt and doubt, advocating for international control of nuclear weapons, Oppenheimer faces distrust, betrayal, and the potential loss of his career. Watching the actor’s performance is incredibly stirring and often agonizing.

Let’s Talk About the Plot Itself

«Oppenheimer» 2023 Under the Microscope: A Review of Christopher Nolan's Latest Film

Christopher Nolan chose an intriguing style, asserting that the colored part of the movie is a subjective narrative, while the black-and-white is objective.

On one hand, he narrates the story from Oppenheimer’s perspective, delving into his past. Robert is presented to the viewer as a smart, charming, and passionate individual, unable to deviate from questions beyond the known world. He’s a bit awkward, sharp-tongued, scarcely concerned with being polite to others, and despite all his genius, he regards his bomb as a means to save the world.

On the other hand, Nolan frequently shifts the temporal plane, reverting to the past, starting with Oppenheimer’s interrogation in the 1950s and delving deeper and deeper. Almost half the film is from the viewpoint of Lewis Strauss, the former chairman of the crucial Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) for Oppenheimer. He is being interviewed (more like an interrogation) for the position of Secretary of Commerce (the Senate rejected his nomination) and talks about the past, revealing his pivotal role in Oppenheimer’s downfall.

All narrative threads intertwine, forming a mutually dependent, impressive picture.

Much of the action unfolds in offices, rooms, and meeting halls, spanning events from Robert Oppenheimer’s student years to the presentation of a medal to him as a sign of political rehabilitation in 1963. The latter event is portrayed in the most intriguing, surprising manner.

The filming of Oppenheimer 2023

The creation of the atomic bomb is just a part of Nolan’s work. In a broader sense, it’s a meticulous portrait of a genius who tries with all his might to interact with his environment, which includes politicians, scientists, military personnel, and even the women in his life. It’s also a depiction of a country so frightened by another ideology (communists) that even a man who provided them with the perfect weapon for defense and threat is viewed with suspicion.

Are There Any Flaws?

Undoubtedly. From a vast, universal theme, Christopher Nolan has crafted a small yet very pompous story of a single individual. The emphases in this regard are intriguingly placed.

Instead of depicting the rise of a villain – albeit an unintentional one – who thrust the world to the brink of annihilation (where the world still resides today due to the existence of nuclear weapons), the director presents the audience with the story of a great man unjustly wronged by the state as a “thank you” for his monumental acts.

Of course, Oppenheimer’s biography deserves attention, but is it right to position him as a martyr who was ungratefully treated, as an innocent victim of an inhuman system?

Moreover, the film carefully skirts around Oppenheimer’s personal relationships. He was quite the playboy, yet the narrative only ambiguously hints at a romantic story with an unconvincing sexual scene (for which, mainly, the film received an R rating).

One might also criticize the lack of exploration into Robert’s eventful and colorful childhood which undoubtedly had a significant impact on his psyche and passion for physics, about which he once remarked that he needed it more than friends. Without this context, the motivations of the adult Oppenheimer remain unclear. His actions often lack explanations because the origins of the events are not traced.

Certainly, all these reproaches towards Nolan aren’t too overt and are not critically severe. After all, we live in an era of open information, and enhancing one’s knowledge about the man who nearly marked the end of civilization is easy. But, of course, it’s up to the audience to judge.

In Conclusion

The film “Oppenheimer” is a major cinematic event of 2023, which will undoubtedly become iconic and earn a well-deserved place in the annals of film history. It is definitely worth watching as a future classic.

Interestingly, the release of Nolan’s film coincided with the debut of Greta Gerwig’s vibrant rom-com in pink, “Barbie”, giving rise to the amusing cultural phenomenon dubbed “Barbenhimer”. It became trendy to watch both films consecutively, as if they were one work. And it truly is an impressive experience.

After the dense, weighty, and serious story of Oppenheimer, the whimsical adventures of Barbie come across as a refreshing palate-cleansing dessert following a heavy meal, helping to digest and process Christopher Nolan’s overloaded masterpiece.

Do you believe Christopher Nolan approached Oppenheimer's biography appropriately?
Yes, he captured the essence
There are aspects he missed or portrayed inaccurately
I disagree with Nolan's approach
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Анна Румянцева
Anna Rumyantseva

Author, editor and filmmaker.

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