“Oppenheimer” is unstuck in time. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the film is a non-linear account of the life and times of one of the most famous scientists of the 20th century. But while “Oppenheimer” presents a scattering of moments from across J. Robert Oppenheimer’s lifetime, the movie (based on the 2005 biography “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin) is mostly filtered through two main events: the building of the atomic bomb and the 1954 security hearing that called into question his patriotism. Thus, what is arguably Oppenheimer’s moment of greatest triumph is juxtaposed against his moment of greatest humiliation.
Nolan has become increasingly obsessed with time since “Inception,” whether it’s the non-linear storytelling of “Dunkirk” or the reversed time-flow oddity of “Tenet.” That devotion serves him well in “Oppenheimer,” for it is not a standard biopic, mostly due to that cross-cutting of time periods and stories. It would be easy to present Oppenheimer’s life as a more linear story, but by showing the interconnectedness of our own lives — how the past is linked to the future, and how our destiny is reflected back in our present — “Oppenheimer” becomes a much more captivating film. And it is a very captivating film.
“Oppenheimer” is easily one of the best movies of the year so far. A lot of that comes from its brilliant sense of contradiction. It’s shot on as wide a lens as possible, but it’s mostly comprised of close-ups of people’s faces, which makes it epically intimate. It’s made up of conversations, testimony and debate, yet they feel as riveting as any action sequence, especially when coupled with the amazing score by Ludwig Göransson. It’s a tale of progress told in a scattershot manner, and though the movie centers around the greatest destructive force known to mankind, it concentrates on interpersonal relationships.
The gorgeous visuals by DP Hoyte van Hoytema, the impeccable sound design by Richard King and the impressive editing by Jennifer Lame come together to create something stirringly grandiose yet delicately intimate. This is assisted greatly by an amazing cast who do some of their best work. Cillian Murphy is the obvious standout at the center of it all, playing Oppenheimer as an aloof egotist who is humbled and whose wings are eventually clipped. There is an intensity and a lingering sadness to the performance that alternates in prominence depending on what era of Oppenheimer’s life we are in. Matt Damon also shines as the wry general who oversees The Manhattan Project, trying to wrangle all the scientific geniuses without ever taking his mind off his mission of winning the war. Additionally, while are many key supporting players in the cast, and they all get a moment or two to shine, my favorite is easily David Krumholtz as Isidor Rabi, a fellow physicist who acts a bit as the conscience of the project.
Speaking of contradictions, this is where that sprawling cast of well-known faces becomes a bit of an issue. It’s pretty distracting when Casey Affleck or some other well-known actor suddenly appears on screen, taking audiences out of the movie for a bit. They all do good work, but it’s still a jarring moment when someone famous pops in for a few scenes and then disappears for the rest of the film. Much like Los Alamos itself, “Oppenheimer” has attracted some of the best in the field, but it can create a bit of discombobulation.
The other issue is that part of the third act drags a bit as Nolan underscores multiple points repeatedly. It’s not that these aren’t important aspects of Oppenheimer’s life but simply that their emotional resonance diminishes the more they are harped upon. This leads to a bit of stagnation until it picks back up for a marvelous and powerful conclusion. It’s not enough to truly mar the movie, but it’s an odd pacing issue that isn’t present anywhere else.
Minor issues aside, Nolan has crafted a singular piece of cinema about a very singular persona. Oppenheimer was a man who genuinely helped shape the 20th century, and yet even with his life laid bare in books and this film, he remains a bit of an enigmatic presence. The real-life scientist was ravaged by The Red Scare, but it appears that he had already been defeated by his greatest accomplishment, collaborating with some of the brightest minds of his time to create one of the most horrible moments in history. And it’s that spirit of contradictory elements, along with a brilliant and unconventional approach that yields some mesmerizing scenes and tremendous performances, that makes “Oppenheimer” such a triumph.
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh
Director: Christopher Nolan