‘Oppenheimer’ Review: Christopher Nolan’s Epic Is Brainy and Grand in All the Right Ways

Elevated by Cillian Murphy’s exacting performance, Nolan’s biopic on the father of the atomic bomb is majestic and morally complex

Cillian Murphy in "Oppenheimer" (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

There is a distinctly quiet moment in writer-director Christopher Nolan’s operatic and intimidatingly vast “Oppenheimer,” a brainy, brassy yet, on the whole, majestic historical biopic-thriller about the father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer. The moment is part of a sequence that recounts a first in the history of humankind: the detonation of the world’s earliest nuclear weapon during the Trinity test explosion, that some of the universe’s top scientific brains carried out as part of the “Manhattan Project.”

It was days before the U.S. dropped a pair of replica atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to a shatteringly devastating aftermath that brought a definitive end to WWII while claiming hundreds of thousands of human lives and launching a nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. (Those blasts, Nolan smartly and responsibly doesn’t try to recreate.)

The fleeting silence in such a massive, centerpiece of a scene is ironic and unexpected, especially considering Nolan’s appetite for bravura filmmaking and incessant and enormous sound, that’s often delivered with a side of a persistent musical score. (Here, the imposing and stupendous score that can occasionally afford to take a backseat belongs to the Oscar and Grammy-winning maestro, Ludwig Göransson.)

The quiet doesn’t last of course. A deafening cacophony of blinding lights, fiery particles and explosive thuds follow the mushroom cloud with the cheers of scientists and officials, as if they’d just managed to bring Tom Hanks and the rest of the Apollo 13 astronauts back to earth. Or they just broke the code of the Nazis’ super-secret “Enigma” machine, like in “The Imitation Game.”

Simply put, the scene is uncomfortably perfect because it’s founded on polar opposites, like the antitheses at the core of Oppenheimer the man, perennially harboring various moral and intellectual dilemmas, including during this very moment. With a pair of mournful eyes, an astounding Cillian Murphy wears these paradoxes on his face in the eponymous role, like the earned, subtle wrinkles etched on his concerned visage that Nolan and DP Hoyte van Hoytema gloriously capture on IMAX in intimate detail, generally uncharacteristic of this wide format. Is the explosion an unparalleled scientific achievement?

Yes, if you are first and foremost a theorist who wouldn’t hesitate to push the button, like Oppenheimer frequently identifies as throughout the film. Is it also something humankind should have never realized? Also yes, from this technologically more advanced side of history, currently questioning its achievements in the field of AI. You know how the quote goes: “Scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Except, Murphy’s Oppenheimer thinks about it, and the possible end he might bring often, so often in fact that he sees visions in his head all day; visions of particles, explosions, burning and perishing humans that Nolan and his VFX team bring to life with alarming frequency and bone-chilling finesse that stuns on the big screen in 70mm. Oppenheimer is a man frightened yet possessed: on the one hand, doing his job like the brilliant scientist he is, with the sole goal of creating a superlative weapon against Hitler. And on the other, constantly questioning the cataclysmic results of his invention that would one day put the reluctant pioneer on the cover of TIME.

Based on Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s 2005 biography, “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” Nolan’s film revolves around procedural scenes of smart men in rooms, talking. Think a little “Darkest Hour,” a little “JFK” and a whole lot of Nolan’s archetypal gloomy leading men from the likes of “Dark Knight,” “Interstellar” and “Inception,” and you’ll find yourself in the vicinity of “Oppenheimer.” The film operates in Nolan’s signature non-linear fashion on different timelines, elegantly edited by Jennifer Lame.

There is of course the timeline that leads up to the making of the bomb, featuring a brisk Matt Damon portraying Manhattan Project director Leslie Groves, the terrific chameleon Bennie Safdie as theoretical physicist Edward Teller and Josh Hartnett as nuclear scientist Ernest Lawrence, among others. A related timeline involves Oppenheimer’s McCarthy-era security clearance hearing in 1954, through a committee led by an aptly conceited Jason Clarke’s special counsel Roger Robb.

Elsewhere, we get one of Robert Downey Jr.’s career-best performances as Admiral Lewis Strauss, whose much publicized 1959 Senate confirmation hearing and complex relationship to Oppenheimer lends the film some of its finest scenes. (To differentiate Strauss’ perspective, Nolan and Hoytema artistically film these scenes in grainy black-and-white.) There are also women in the picture—one, played by an underutilized yet hypnotizing Florence Pugh in the role of the free-spirited psychiatrist Jean Tatlock, who has an ill-fated but steamy romantic affair with Oppenheimer.

The other is a subtly scene-stealing Emily Blunt in the role of Oppenheimer’s unconventional wife Kitty. Once a Bay Area socialite who later refuses to be bogged down by her new domestic role in Los Alamos, Blunt’s Kitty single-handedly runs away with perhaps the most memorable security clearance hearing scene in the movie.

Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, David Krumholtz, Alden Ehrenreich, Kenneth Branagh and more lend notability to their parts, but the film ping-pongs so fast and relentlessly amid these interlocking timelines that you are unlikely to follow all the moving pieces, dialogue and details as they bounce around. But even when you wish for some slowdown, you won’t exactly be lost either, thanks to Nolan’s sure-handed structural orchestration that confidently leads the dance and the rhythm of Lame’s proficient cutting.

What you will piece together during the first viewing—including marvelous grace notes such as Oppenheimer’s taste for syrup-dipped cocktail glasses—will be enough to keep you glued to the action. It might even bring you back for a second (or third) dip into Nolan’s interrogation of Oppenheimer’s multifaceted legacy as a restless man of science, Jewish identity and burdened conscience, who, in his brother’s words, sees beyond the world that we live in.

The one that Nolan puts him in is created in undeniable lushness, from the Western-like vistas of Los Alamos, New Mexico—a place Oppenheimer’s in love with, imagined by production designer Ruth De Jong—to the impeccable suits and artfully curved hats (by costume designer Ellen Mirojnick) that Oppenheimer presents himself in. Sometimes the picture leaves you craving more quiet moments that would have elevated the procedural machinations and chamber dialogue exchanges, without attacking the senses.

But it’s also bound to deposit feelings of profound awe, sorrow and cinematic joy into the viewers, especially on the heels of Nolan’s devastating conclusion. After all, how often do our cinema outings to major original works feel this big, this full of ideas, this much grounded on ambiguous morals and challengingly imperfect heroes these days? How often do they make us wonder whether our contemporary leaders and decision-makers are as humbly self-questioning as they should be? With immense, cautionary queries about the past and into the future on its mind, “Oppenheimer” has it all in that regard, detonating on countless visual and philosophical cylinders we come to the movies for.