It won’t surprise you to know that the most remarkable sequence in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is the one depicting the Trinity Test – the first detonation of a nuclear bomb, in the heart of the New Mexico desert in 1945. Nolan allows the explosion to unfold in absolute, deafening silence for what feels like hours, tears forming on the faces of observers and the IMAX screen filling with flames and smoke. Not many new movies can match a moment like this.
Then, the sound hits. Or rather, the noise. It slams into your chest with a thud. The weight of this world-changing moment hits with a wallop, as one of the best directors working today unleashes the power of 21st century technology to depict the peak of 1940s scientific innovation. It’s special stuff.
And in some ways, that’s why Oppenheimer is so utterly frustrating. It contains one of the most incredible set pieces committed to celluloid – and Christopher Nolan is an utter devotee of shooting on film – but it’s also capable of being a muddled biopic that doesn’t feel even close to the definitive take on this controversial American hero.
Let’s start with what’s clear: Cillian Murphy is exceptional in the title role. It’s a performance of real complexity, with Murphy marrying unyielding calm and stillness with a strange, serpentine charisma. His J. Robert Oppenheimer is equally believable as both hero and villain, emerging as a mercurial figure with eyes so blue and probing that they could knock out a basilisk at ten paces. If there’s any justice, he’ll be very busy on red carpets in February and March next year.
As for the surrounding players, it’s a bit of a thankless battle. The Oppenheimer cast is a stacked ensemble, with Nolan amassing a Wes Anderson-esque quantity of A-listers to pop in and play very famous scientists – Kenneth Branagh as a strange, Herzogian spin on Niels Bohr; Jack Quaid bizarrely near-wordless as Richard Feynman. Nobody really gets a chance to make an impression, with Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt particularly under-served as the two women in Oppenheimer’s life.
Initially, this is a fleet-footed and pacey biopic, blasting through Oppenheimer’s early life in a whirlwind of hazy Communist Party meetings and academic campaigning. This stuff will be important to Oppenheimer’s downfall later, but unfortunately there simply isn’t time for much in the way of groundwork.
Then the arrival of Matt Damon as Manhattan project director General Groves powers the movie into its strongest segment, depicting the rapid innovation and panicked urgency of the Los Alamos laboratory. There’s a real energy to these sequences, building inexorably towards the intermingled horror and awe of Trinity.
Nolan ratchets the tension up almost unbearably with the help of Ludwig Göransson’s insistent score, which ingeniously introduces the evocative crackle of a Geiger counter as the test draws nearer. When the movie says goodbye to Los Alamos, it leaves Oppenheimer under a cloud of uncertainty, as he begins to wrangle with the enormity of what his creation has done – aided by a truly horrifying vision involving Christopher Nolan’s daughter.
Once the dust settles, it’s Robert Downey Jr. who gets the most to do other than Murphy, as the slippery politician Lewis Strauss. His perspective on his interactions with Oppenheimer forms the monochrome secondary timeline of the movie, set amid the 1959 hearings surrounding Strauss’s Secretary of Commerce nomination.
This timeline forms the heart of the movie’s final act and, ultimately, it’s where Nolan’s vision seems less sure-footed.
In the wake of the gargantuan stakes of everything happening at Los Alamos, it feels strange for the movie to then switch focus into a multi-stranded courtroom drama, split between Strauss’s nomination hearing and Oppenheimer’s grilling over his security clearance.
These scenes have a tendency to veer into shouty melodrama – as Göransson’s score joins the chorus of yelling – which feels at odds with the careful control of the first half.
There’s a world in which this stuff would’ve worked, and there’s definitely something to be said about the chaos around the atomic arms race after the war. But the result is a lost focus on the idea of the man behind the bomb, who pursued science out of passion and became a “destroyer of worlds” – as he himself so famously said – with blood on his hands in the process.
The movie makes a noble attempt to wrangle the story of the atomic bomb and the complex political leanings of Oppenheimer into a coherent package, but the result is something that can often feel muddy. This is a three-hour epic that somehow stills feels as if too many stones have been left unturned in exploring the actual human being behind the story. When Damon’s character says Oppenheimer “knows more about science than people”, he could be speaking about his director.
It feels perverse to give a three-star review to Oppenheimer (Editor’s note: Three stars is a recommendation), because this is anything but a middling film. It’s a muscular and delightfully old-fashioned biopic – augmented with the most cutting-edge filmmaking – that, at its best, stands among the best movies of Nolan’s career.
But sadly, the movie is as maddening and mercurial as Oppenheimer himself, struggling to distill the protagonist’s tangled, complicated life into just a few hours. In some ways, it’s fitting that such a difficult man has inspired such a difficult film. There’s genius at its heart, but it sometimes gets lost in the smoke.
If you want to learn more about this movie, find out about Einstein in Oppenheimer and the Oppenheimer age rating. You can also learn if Oppenheimer is banned in Japan and explore why Cillian Murphy thinks Oppenheimer will mess you up. We’ve also listed the best Christopher Nolan movies ranked.
Of course, this week also marks the Barbie movie release date and we have some views on the big question: should I watch Oppenheimer or Barbie first? We’ve also got a Barbie review so you can see if life in plastic is indeed fantastic.
Christopher Nolan delivers some of his most impressive sequences in Oppenheimer, but it loses its way in the weeds of Oppenheimer’s postwar turmoil.