Browse all reviews by letter     A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z 0 - 9

USA 2023
Directed by
Christopher Nolan
181 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars


Christopher Nolan’s film is not a biopic per se but rather an account of how, thanks to his leadership of the Manhattan Project, J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) came to be called “the father of the atom bomb” or, more loftily-put, ”The American Prometheus” which is the title of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherman on which Nolan’s script is based.

The cloistered, abstruse world of quantum physics you might think deserves the kind of cautious, studious treatment that was given to Alan Turing, the so-called “father of computing” by The Imitation Game (2014). But that was a English film and Nolan is not just American, he is also a leading exponent of super-sized high concept blockbuster film-making. Some may question his choice of the IMAX 70mm format as being over-scale for its subject-matter, particularly in a film that is largely shot indoors with extensive use of close-ups (although good use is made of the bare vista of the New Mexico desert where the Project was sited). The same might be said of a score by Ludwig Göransson and supporting sound design that is cranked to ear-drum splitting volume for most of the run-time, the combination of sound and vision subjecting us a sensorially confronting experience. 

By the film’s end, however, the three hour assault on one’s viscera kinda makes sense. Oppenheimer is a pessimistic film about how in the name of science the civilized world acquired the ability to blow itself to Kingdom Come, By extension, presumably Nolan decided that an awful power deserves an awesome screen treatment. (Which is not to say that a more studious effort would not have been more effective).

The film takes us through the history of the American development of the atom bomb and its subsequent catastrophic deployment in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Running in parallel with this is an account of both Oppenheimer’s personal life and career rise and fall. Initially celebrated as a hero, then as the real-world implications of his work become apparent to him (like, “derr”!) he was sidelined as a Communist-sympathiser and even dismissed as a “cry baby” by President Truman (played by Gary Oldman in an uncredited role). Somewhat surprisingly Nolan has decided not to use any stock footage of the bombing but as we are mostly all familiar with such the restraint has a certain emotional efficacy as shameful memories are called up.

The story, with its numerous chalk-wielding boffins on one hand and political strategists on the other has a large cast of players, a tangle compounded by Jennifer Lame's non-chronological editing. One can’t help but wonder if some more pruning, particularly of the closed hearing which occupies a large slice of the latter part of the film, would not have strengthened it.

Murphy, who has appeared in a handful of Nolan’s films albeit in smaller roles, has been praised for his performance although he is most effective in solo close-ups, the toll of perceived responsibility on Oppenheimer reflected in his drawn face. He is surrounded by a strong support cast who help to bulk out the screen with Robert Downey, Jr. standing out as Lewis Strauss, the Atomic Energy Commission chair, and the always reliable Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves, the Project’s armed forces OIC. Nolan also interpellates aspects of Oppenheimer’s beleaguered personal life, in particular his relationship with troubled journalist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) and wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt). Unfortunately the director does little more with this aspect of the story than using it as an opportunity for some gratuitous sex scenes.

FYI: Oppenheimer has been a huge financial success, raking in nearly a billion in theatrical sales alone. For such a demanding film that is a heartening achievement although the marketing of its serendipitously diametric opposite, Greta Gerwig’s frothy post-modern musical, Barbie, as a companion piece helped considerably.




Want something different?

random vintage best worst