Oppenheimer (now streaming on VOD services like Amazon Prime Video) is an anomaly: A “prestige”/“auteur-driven” not-a-movie-but-a-Film that was a wild box office success. Christopher Nolan’s inventive bio of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” raked in $950 million worldwide in spite of being a talky three-hour drama that features only one explosion, but hey, that boom is a really, really big one. One wonders if the film would’ve been such a mighty financial success without the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon, which inspired people to flock to theaters for a Barbie/Oppenheimer cognitive-dissonance double-feature – or without the megahyped IMAX 70mm release, which amplified Nolan’s inspired visual presentation, the likes of which lesser directors would probably never consider applying to a historical biopic about a quantum-physics genius. Another component of the anomaly? This mega-big-screen Film works pretty damn well at home on our TVs, too.
OPPENHEIMER: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: The first two images we see in Oppenheimer are rain and fire. Appropriately, the third is of Oppenheimer himself (Cillian Murphy), who embodies both. Not too long after this, once Nolan shifts from black and white to color, switches aspect ratios and establishes a few plot strands set in different decades – once Nolan does his Nolan thing, you might say – Oppenheimer sits down a university student to discuss how light functions as both wave and particle. “It’s paradoxical – and yet, it works,” Oppenheimer says, which is also a remarkably pithy, on-point description of the man himself. In the moments between these scenes, we see Oppenheimer as a young man and brilliant student in the mid-1920s; we meet Lewis Strauss in 1959 (Robert Downey Jr.) as he’s on the cusp of his Senate confirmation to President Eisenhower’s cabinet; we watch as Oppenheimer is subject to an antagonistic 1954 hearing over whether his government security clearance should be reinstated; and we see Strauss offer Oppenheimer a job, then get miffed when he believes Oppenheimer spoke poorly of him to Albert Einstein (Tom Conti). Cut into all of this are nearly abstract shots of lights, sparks, flares and stars. Oppenheimer is about to start a fire that no amount of rain will ever put out.
These myriad plotlines eventually almost settle down a little as Gen. Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) lures Oppenheimer away from his gig teaching quantum physics, and they get to the business of developing the atom bomb. Hitler’s cutting through Europe, and the Allies worry that he’s developing his own weapon of mass destruction; it’s Oppenheimer’s job to beat the Fuhrer to the punch. Groves enables him to build an entire town, dubbed Los Alamos, in the middle of the New Mexico desert where all the scientists and technicians can bring their families and dedicate all their time to the effort. Meanwhile, we flash back to how Oppenheimer met his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), who struggles with depression and alcoholism, as well as how he met Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), his mistress (being with two partners at once is applying quantum mechanics to love, you know). The two women share one thing in common: membership in the U.S. Communist Party, and Oppenheimer’s fringe interest in such far-left politics will dog him for decades. To be fair, he seems more like a noncommittal sort when it comes to politics and women, more driven by an intellectual curiosity that rejects binary ideas.
Case in point: Is the atomic bomb good or bad? A deterrent or an accelerant? The weapon to end all war or inspire more war? Oppenheimer wrestles with the paradox, but can’t pin it to the mat. All the narratives roll forward: Oppenheimer’s hearing gets heated. Strauss’ confirmation gets heated, too. And as the Los Alamos project progresses, Oppenheimer and co. stare down the likelihood of the bomb creating a chain reaction that’ll set the atmosphere aflame, destroying the entire planet. What are the chances? “Near zero” is the answer, but that’s not zero, and perhaps it goes without saying that everyone would feel a lot better if it was zero; as history dictates, they soldier on anyway. Dozens of characters exchange dialogue with Murphy-as-Oppenheimer, and they’re played by Josh Hartnett, Dane DeHaan, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, Benny Safdie, Jason Clarke, David Dastmalchian, Alden Ehrenreich, Macon Blair, Josh Peck, Jack Quaid, Olivia Thirlby and Gary Oldman as Harry Truman. Some of these characters feel the reverberations of that infamous bomb test in the New Mexico desert more than others, but it’s safe to say Oppenheimer felt them the most.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: They’re two wildly different artists, I know, but Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City are both piercing and complex explorations of atomic-age existentialism.
Performance Worth Watching: Oldman blatantly steals his only scene; between this and Fair Play, Ehrenreich has reasserted himself after facing some (not entirely deserving!) criticism for Solo: A Star Wars Story; Pugh makes the absolute most of her limited screen time; Murphy is never anything less than fully committed; and is that Josh Hartnett, yes indeed that’s Josh Hartnett! But the performance we’ll carry with us the longest is Downey’s, whose memorably acerbic role as this story’s greasy-politics villain will likely make him an Oscar frontrunner.
Memorable Dialogue: The film’s most piercing bit is a moment in which Oldman’s Truman says nothing at all, only firing off a million-razorblades stare after this exchange:
Eisenhower: I hear you’re leaving Los Alamos. Whatcha gonna do with it?
Oppenheimer: Give it back to the Indians.
Sex and Skin: A couple of medium-graphic sex scenes; near full-frontal Pugh.
Our Take: As depicted here, Oppenheimer is not at all a Man of Certainty, which, in the mid-century context, makes him not much of a man at all. Real men are decisive and stick to their guns and double down and never, ever change their minds. You know the type. But those hombres anchor genre movies (Westerns, action flicks) and aren’t the subjects of complicated 180-minute biodramas that build and build and build and build to a nuclear explosion that’s so non-climactic, it’s followed by another entire hour of movie. Not that the kaboom isn’t memorable; it’s intense and awe-inspiring, rattling body and mind with its physicality and implications, and it’s the only thing that shakes Oppenheimer from his habit of being ideologically evasive.
Murphy is extraordinary at carrying this man’s multitudes: His take on Oppenheimer is that of a brilliant scientist who’s gifted at inspiring other bright minds to build upon his ideas, a man committed to telling the truth no matter what, and a deeply flawed human being. In Murphy’s performance you sense the struggle within Oppenheimer to tamp down emotions outside of his enthusiasm for pure scientific pursuits, but when politics muddy those pursuits, the emotion swells, cracking his facade. Is he a communist? Yes and no. Does he like being a husband and family man? Yes and no. Does he think the atomic bomb is the granddaddy of all ideological cans of worms? Yes, of course he does, and his attempt to compartmentalize his work in the lab from real-world implications is surely his greatest failure.
Believe it or not, Nolan’s storytelling here is crisp and economic, the narrative moving urgently thanks to Jennifer Lame’s brisk editing. Oppenheimer is as propulsive as dialogue-driven habitually time-hopping three-hour character studies get, an uneasy score and on-edge performances generating simmering tension up to and through the big detonation, and the subsequent fallout when Oppenheimer tries to split the hairs of fame and infamy, of guilt and righteousness. Nolan’s loop-de-looping screenplay mirrors the ethical curlicues Oppenheimer navigates throughout, and is packed with dialogue that feels elevated and pragmatic, dozens of sloganeering lines laced with double meanings at the service of a procedural underscored with the terrifying moral dilemmas of the Cold War and struggle existential metaphors involving black holes, dying stars, shattered atoms and things we struggle to comprehend and don’t want to think about. Sure, we might chuckle when Matt Damon all-caps bellows, “THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT F—ING THING IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD!” but we can’t argue that it’s not justified.
Oppenheimer gives us perhaps the year’s most horrifying sequence when the protagonist gives an unconvincing jingoistic speech to Los Alamos residents, and from his point of view, it’s a surrealistic nightmare, a booze-soaked quasi-religious scene of screaming, crying, laughing rapture. People stomp and clap and chant his name, for he’s the man who ended the war by inventing the bomb that killed hundreds of thousands of people. The chain reaction has started, and it feels like the beginning of the end. It’s the only time we see him speak a lie.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Oppenheimer is an ambitious film (one of the most ambitious ever) about an ambitious project (also one of the most ambitious ever, for better or worse). Nolan blows up the traditional biopic and rebuilds it in thrilling, dynamic fashion.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.