REVIEW: Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’

In the days since my first viewing of Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Oppenheimer, there are three words that have continued to return to the forefront of my thoughts: Staggering, haunting, and tragic. Starring Cillian Murphy in the title role and an ensemble cast including Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., and Florence Pugh, this three-hour biopic has already exceeded box office expectations and is poised to be a main player as awards season approaches. 

Easily the most dialogue-heavy movie of Nolan’s filmography, Oppenheimer is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Nonlinear storytelling may be the most iconic element of Nolan’s approach to filmmaking, and each project provides a new creative avenue for him to explore this narrative tool. Stepping back and looking at the screenplay structure of Oppenheimer from a broader perspective, there are three distinct acts – which is a very traditional approach to screenwriting on the surface. However, in this case, the way in which these three acts are constructed is what breaks the mold. The first hour is a biographical character drama, the second hour is a detailed scientific procedural, and the final hour is a political thriller and courtroom drama. 

Edited by Jennifer Lame, the layout of the story feels like a mirror. The audience is shown glimpses of the same narrative moments from different perspectives, and there are unique visual styles to represents each of these points of view – the most obvious being the sequences in black-and-white analog IMAX photography. Shot by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema in his fourth collaboration with Nolan (Interstellar, Dunkirk, and Tenet), the scope of the frame captured by the 65 mm film is enchanting. From the classrooms and campus of Cambridge to the sprawling desert of New Mexico, the cinematic immersion is all-encompassing. 

Another aspect of this immersion is the sound design, coupled with the musical score by Ludwig Göransson. Throughout the second act, the relationship between the speed of light and the much slower speed of sound is explored in such a fashion that culminates in an unforgettable moment with the Trinity test, right at the two-hour mark of the film. Nolan understands that silence can be more deafening than anything. However, this is not used as a superficial gimmick. For each decision which exhibits Nolan’s obvious passion for spectacle and pushing the boundaries of technical filmmaking, there is an emotionally driven reason behind it. 

The lead performance by Cillian Murphy is one that may very well be studied by multiple generations of acting talent to come. Once again, the trio of adjectives – staggering, haunting, and tragic – comes to mind. Consider the comments made by Murphy’s co-star Robert Downey Jr. In a conversation with People Magazine, Downey said of Murphy’s performance, “I have never witnessed a greater sacrifice by a lead actor in my career.” 

Now playing in theaters, Oppenheimer is already one of the most critically and financially successful films of Nolan’s 25-year career. Time will tell if this is finally the year that he attains his elusive first Oscar win.