Spoiler Alert: The Bomb Explodes!
After two weeks of waiting past its July 21 premiere, I finally walked into the AMC theater at Easton bubbling with excitement only to leave it speechless in awe and fear hours later. I didn’t say much on the ride back home with my family, but one thought persisted in my mind: Oppenheimer is the best movie I have ever seen.
The twelfth film of director Christopher Nolan’s remarkable career might just be his magnum opus. It is an exclamation point on a resume that includes many of my personal favorites like Inception (2010), Interstellar (2014), and The Dark Knight (2008). Although Nolan covered history before in his 2017 war thriller, Dunkirk, the sheer scope of this three-hour long historical biopic is something I believe will never be repeated.
On the surface, Oppenheimer may seem like a straightforward story about the creation of the first atomic bomb. However, it is much more than that. It dives deep into McCarthyism and American politics at the height of the Cold War, highlights a pantheon of 20th century scientists who broke barriers in physics from Einstein to Hans Bethe, and warns against the dangers of nuclear proliferation that we must navigate today. At the forefront of it all, though, is a character study of one of history’s most consequential individuals and the complicated life he lived. J. Robert Oppenheimer’s charisma catapulted him to become the face of the scientific community, but it also caused his falling out with the federal government. Likewise, his country hailed him a hero for the work that would later burden him with regret for the rest of his life.
Cillian Murphy’s Oscar-worthy performance of the father of the atomic bomb blew me away. In moments of silence, his guilt-ridden face and wide eyes conveyed more words and emotions than any actor I’ve seen on screen speak. Backed by an ensemble cast, Murphy’s fellow actors featured Robert Downey Jr. as the stingy politician, Lewis Strauss, Emily Blunt as the frazzled but stout wife Kitty Oppenheimer, Matt Damon as the blunt and comedic Army general, Leslie Groves, and countless more performances that bring famous and unknown historical figures to life. As a lover of history, it was everything I could have asked for.
Those who want a movie for jaw-dropping action should steer clear of this dialogue-heavy drama. The script is dense and packed with information. Though the first half builds in rising anticipation toward the Trinity Test, the second half deals with the political and philosophical fallout of unleashing the atomic age and an arms race. The final hour is in the style of a courtroom drama where the United States government tries to revoke Oppenheimer’s security clearance due to his alleged communist sympathies.
Despite the long runtime, the story flies at breakneck pace, forcing the audience to keep up with its ever- changing locations and new characters. One scene has Los Alamos bustling with activity and research followed by an abrupt trip to Chicago to meet Enrico Fermi and witness the first man-made nuclear reaction all within a minute of screentime. Nolan combines this speed with non-linear storytelling. Scenes shot in color are through Oppenheimer’s perspective whereas the black and white sections show the history from an objective truth. To add to the confusion, these perspectives are also taking place years apart from each other. There were times when I struggled to follow what happened. As I was processing the importance of one scene, the next one would follow, taking place in a different time from a different perspective. Moments like these overwhelmed me but did not take away from the incredible experience.
The actors and direction impressed me, but so too did Lüdwig Goransson’s score, which plays almost non-stop from beginning to end. Standout tracks like “Can You Hear The Music?” and “Destroyer of Worlds” elevated scenes of scientific innovation and crushing dread. Beautiful practical effects from Hoyte van Hoytema helped visualize the buzzing mind of Oppenheimer as he imagined atoms blasting into each other, nuclear fission, and particles dancing in quantum space.
Even with its R rating and 180 minutes of screentime, this historical drama still managed to rake in 800 million dollars and counting, which makes it the second highest grossing R movie of all time behind DC’s The Joker.
The ending, which I will not spoil, is genius but terrifying. A final blow to not only Oppenheimer, but to the audience as well. It is a gut punch to hopes of peace, a searing indictment of a world we built and destroyed with the atom bomb.