Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr.) – Nobody in Hollywood thought that a film about Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the “father of the atomic bomb” could be a blockbuster. But trusting the story to Batman, Dunkirk, Tenet, Intersteller, and Inception director/writer Christopher Nolan guaranteed that the story wouldn’t be some boring biopic. Getting lucky that the film would be released the same week as Barbie, leading to an internet meme surrounding a Barbenheimer double feature, created a seismic event. Opening with $82 million the first weekend ensured a profit.
Oppenheimer is a masterful, brooding, exciting re-telling of Oppenheimer’s life from his college days in the 1920s through the mid-1950s. Under Nolan’s deft touch, the film presents a complicated, haunted protagonist whose brilliance is exceeded only by his ego. His partnership with humorless Army General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) led to the development of the bombs that ended World War II and ushered in the atomic age and its potential to destroy the world.
Oppie focused on the science while clearly recognizing the implications of his work if he and his hand-selected group of scientists succeeded. Working from their secret location in New Mexico, where Oppenheimer owned a ranch, the Manhattan Project team raced their German enemy and their Russian “ally” to create a superbomb.
We all know how it ends yet the movie captivates thanks to a blasting, atonal soundtrack by Oscar winning composer Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther). Shot in IMAX, the film pops off the extra big screen with an intensity that matches the explosiveness of the nuclear reaction that relied on fission. If possible, make sure you see this movie on an IMAX screen. Don’t settle unless you must, and please don’t wait to watch it at home.
The cast is first rate led by Irish actor Cillian Murphy, who worked with Nolan on The Dark Knight and Dunkirk. Murphy usually plays dark villains, and he masterfully portrays Oppenheimer as pained, haunted, and uncomfortable in his own skin. As disciplined as Oppenheimer is in his scientific endeavors, he is reckless in his personal life as he flirts with Communism and engages in personal affairs. When, before 1950, Oppie becomes a critic of nuclear proliferation and an advocate of international oversight of the technology, he becomes the target of sinister forces within the government. The hero of the end of the war becomes a pariah, abandoned by some of his closest associates during the “Red Scare.”
The film is presented brilliantly as flashback as Oppenheimer faces a secret hearing to determine whether he should keep his security clearance, a veiled attempt to discredit him. Murphy and Nolan play this post-war period as a lens into Oppenheimer’s moral struggle, perhaps even penance for developing such a lethal weapon.
The supporting cast is outstanding, most notably Robert Downey, Jr. as Lewis Straus, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission. A complicated man, Straus turns from Oppenheimer’s chief sponsor to his secret nemesis, eventually orchestrating Oppie’s fall from grace. Downey is fantastic! Write it down now, he will get an Oscar nomination as will Murphy.
Emily Blunt plays Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, a biologist relegated to housewife who became a fierce defender of her husband. Blunt’s performance is both understated yet powerful. Florence Pugh, a surprise Oscar nominee for Little Women, steals scenes as Jean Tatlock, one of Oppenheimer’s lovers and muse.
As much as I like superstar Matt Damon, I think he was miscast as Groves. Portraying the no-nonsense, by-the-book General who oversaw the building of the Pentagon before taking over the Manhattan Project, Damon doesn’t quite have the bearing the part requires. He certainly doesn’t detract from the film, but it feels like he was hired for his star power.
And there are lots of cameos, most notably Josh Hartnett, Rami Malek, Casey Affleck, and Matthew Modine. And I challenge you to identify the cameos of Gary Oldman and Tom Conti before the closing credits.
Oppenheimer is an incredible film thanks to Nolan and Murphy. It exceeded my already high expectations. It is great that it has become a box office hit because it is a good story and, most importantly, a cautionary tale about the long-term impact of revolutionary technology.