Review by Nicholas Porteous for Mr. Will Wong
Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan‘s historical epic, examines the paradoxical life and legacy of the father of the atomic bomb. We live in a world shaped by the fear of nuclear weaponry, and it’s hard to imagine a time when that fear wasn’t a given. Making a Biopic around an invention that has caused the deaths of millions is a fascinating conceit. Nolan immerses us in a time when humanity stood on the precipice of realizing these devices–when few people had a notion of such devastating power, and those who could imagine it were perhaps less afraid of the bomb itself, and more concerned with who would invent it first.
Cillian Murphy dons the trademark goth hat and suit as Oppenheimer. Despite a prolific partnership with Nolan–appearing in five of his previous movies–this is the first time he’s headlined, and it’s cool to see him grab the spotlight after so many memorable supporting turns. His performance is haunting–deeply felt and deeply watchable, practically a lock for a nomination next year, though I wondered how other Nolan regulars might have embodied this extremely complicated personality. Matt Damon successfully balances Murphy‘s amped-up presence with a healthy dose of grounded Utilitarianism as Leslie Groves–the man who recruited Oppenheimer to spearhead the development of the bomb in Los Alamos, and a frequent cipher for the audience, enabling Oppy to explain all the heavy science. Emily Blunt, with the help of Nolan‘s sharp Screenplay, elevates what could have been a thankless housewife role–in the wrong hands–into a powerful presence, capable of going toe-to-toe with any of the Film’s many imposing characters. Robert Downey Jr. puts in great work to sustain long stretches of the Film concerned with a senate confirmation that could have easily felt drab without his presence. The extensive Cast is an embarrassment of riches, filled with heavy hitters and several Oscar winners who often appear for only a minute or two.
Oppenheimer is a three-hour saga that doesn’t waste a minute. Nolan spins dozens of plates in his classic non-chronological style, attempting to convey as much history and science as efficiently as possible, all while sustaining the dramatic engine–a man at odds with the power of his own imagination. The heart of the Movie, and I imagine Nolan‘s major impetus for making it, is the final test sequence, which unfolds around halfway through the Film. The successful detonation of the bomb is moving on many levels–it’s the culmination of years of theory and experimentation, a massive technological leap forward, and a disquieting demonstration of what’s to come. It’s the great paradox at the Movie’s core–an immeasurable act of creation and destruction. This sequence and the scenes that follow it, in which Oppenheimer is unambiguously hailed as a hero of the war while grappling with the implications of his success, are arguably the pinnacle of Nolan’s powers as one of the great storytellers of our time.
Oppenheimer isn’t perfect. Though it conveys a metric ton of history, characters and concepts over a very lengthy runtime without ever turning into a boring lecture, I found the Movie–at least on my first viewing–more compelling as a thorough recounting of human history than as the devastating Character Drama it gives glimpses of–which I wish it could fully inhabit. But don’t let that dampen your anticipation! Oppenheimer is a stunning achievement, and absolutely essential viewing–alongside Barbie, of course.
Universal Pictures Canada release OPPENHEIMER, now in theatres.