OPPENHEIMER Review: Layered, Nuanced Character Study Led by a Brilliant Cillian Murphy

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
OPPENHEIMER Review: Layered, Nuanced Character Study Led by a Brilliant Cillian Murphy

To say, “It’s J. Robert Oppenheimer's world and we just live in it,” might sound facile, glib, or even the punchline to an unfunny, bewildering joke, but it’s as true today as it was on July 16, 1945, the day the Manhattan Project, the super-secret, U.S.-funded military-scientific research team, detonated the first atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

In a moment of self-reflection, Oppenheimer dubbed the atomic bomb “Trinity,” not for the three-in-one God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) of the Christian faith, but for a favorite John Donne poem.

Later, Oppenheimer, not one to shy away from self-aggrandizement, claimed the words from the Bhagavad Gita, “I am Shiva; destroyer of words,” came to him in that awesome, awful moment. Whenever it was actually said, Oppenheimer recognized, not for the first time nor that last, that the atomic bomb changed the world in irrevocable ways.

For a brief period, it made the United States the world’s first nuclear power. For much longer, it was the beginning of a nuclear arms race between the United States and the former Soviet Union. In less than two decades, the U.S., joined by its European allies, and the Soviet Union, joined, not by political agreement, but by force, by its nominal, Eastern European allies, developed nuclear arsenals that destroy the world many times over (mutual assured destruction or MAD by another name).  

All of that, of course, serves as context, backdrop, and background for Christopher Nolan’s (Interstellar, Inception, The Prestige) latest film, Oppenheimer, an adaptation of Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “American Prometheus.” Shot like most of his previous films in Nolan’s favorite format, 70mm/IMAX, Oppenheimer primarily unfolds across three intertwined time periods, one focused on a Senate confirmation hearing for commerce secretary involving Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), Oppenheimer’s onetime ally turned antagonist; not atypical “scenes from a life” set between the mid-1920s through the mid-1960s; and the 1954 security clearance hearing before a biased board of the Atomic Energy Commission.

The result of that hearing led to Oppenheimer’s (Cillian Murphy) effective removal from governmental policy-making or political influence. Haltingly, nervously, Oppenheimer reads from a prepared statement, essentially setting up what appears to be a traditional, years-spanning biography of a “great man.”

Except the “great man” that emerges here, for all of his accomplishments as a theoretical physicist and team leader of the Manhattan Project, isn’t a mythological, god-like figure. He’s a deeply, flawed, egotistical, self-centered, entitled man, driven to physical, emotional, and mental extremes by personal ambition, riven with self-doubt at practically every key turning point. He’s a man defined by complexity and contradiction.

Recognizing the inevitability of the atomic bomb — along with the possibility, even likelihood, of Nazi Germany developing one first — Oppenheimer sets aside his left-leaning preoccupations, including most of his friends and associates who identified themselves as Communists or joined the American Communist Party, to lead the Manhattan Project.

While we, looking back across almost a century of time, have the benefit of history, not to mention dramatic irony, Oppenheimer doesn’t. His self-belief powers him through a series of personal and existential crises, the ethical implications of the atomic bomb, including its potential usage against civilian populations, and the post-war anti-communist hysteria that would derail academic and professional careers across America, to make himself, above all, useful to the war effort.

Working forward in time from Oppenheimer’s post-college studies at Cambridge, where he infamously almost poisoned an instructor, and moving forward through a burgeoning academic career in Berkeley, California (then as until recently, a hotbed of leftist activism), Oppenheimer (the film) charts not just the title character’s success as a brilliant theoretician and dynamic instructor, foreshadowing his leadership of the Manhattan Project, but also — in fleetingly brief, broad strokes — the women who also helped to define and shape him as an individual: Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), practically as bright and brilliant as Oppenheimer and, at least here, presented as his first, great love, and Katherine Puening (Emily Blunt), his future wife.

Unsurprisingly given Nolan’s underwhelming track record with female characters, both Jean and Kitty get remarkably little screen time and what screen time they do get functions primarily in service of Oppenheimer’s narrative and character arc. Where the mercurial Jean offers sensual risks and rewards, Kitty offers safety and security.

In their own ways, however, both pay a significant personal price for their association with Oppenheimer. In the Intentional or not, it’s still a narrative weakness, though given Nolan’s obsessive focus on Oppenheimer — perhaps mirroring his own obsessions as a filmmaker and filmmaking — it’s far from surprising.

It’s only slightly more surprising that the other scientists who surround Oppenheimer, numbering at least five or six by one count, won Nobel Prizes, seem to pale or shrink in comparison. Even when they’re physically more imposing, like Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), the future founder of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, they seem like smaller, pettier men, focused far too much on immediate practical or professional problems and not enough on the macro-level, on the logistics of organizing and leading scientists and engineers from disparate disciplines into a cohesive team capable of outracing the Germans (who, as we’re reminded here, had an 18-month head start). They lack the “vision” thing shared by Oppenheimer and by extension, Nolan himself.

Oppenheimer never received a Nobel Prize for his work before, during, or after the Second World War. For a man credited as “the father of the atomic bomb,” it would have been an unlikely accomplishment, but in seeing Trinity and later, in recognizing, however haltingly and incompletely, the human toll of the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the doubts and — in Nolan’s telling and in contemporaneous accounts — a suffocating, debilitating sense of guilt for having unleashed a weapon of mass destruction unlike anything in human history. That he warned against a nuclear arms race, that he advocated for international controls of nuclear materials and arms agreements with the Soviet Union and other nuclear-capable nation-states, did little to assuage that guilt.

It did, however, result in the revival of questions about his loyalty to the United States, specifically during the Red Scare-McCarthyite Era of the post-war years. Given Oppenheimer’s open sympathy and support for leftist causes and associations with self-identifying communists (treated neutrally by Nolan here), it was inevitable he too would suffer the wrath of war hawks in both political parties.

He didn’t see the inevitable points to a kind of willful blindness or ignorance, a man who saw himself as a truth-talker regardless of the consequences, a prophet of sorts (as someone rightly points out). That he forgot or chose to forget what happens to most prophets (i.e., rejection and exile) makes his story a uniquely American one, a uniquely American tragedy.

Nolan captures that American tragedy through an often harrowing combination of close-ups of Oppenheimer’s face, dazzling, disorientating shots of stars and atoms exploding (a mirror presumably of Oppenheimer’s ruminations), and expansive, widescreen vistas of the Los Alamos, New Mexico town and the surrounding desert and mountains. It’s rare, however, for Nolan to venture outside classrooms, hearing rooms, or the interiors of homes, in turn creating a claustrophobic, voyeuristic sense of intimacy with Oppenheimer.

That, in turn, places extra emphasis and stress on Murphy’s performance. Not expressive for some, but more than expressive enough for others (if not most), it’s the kind of revelatory performance that will likely lead to the usual assortment of year-end awards nominations, speeches, and tears, but if it does, it’ll only be because it was well-deserved.

Oppenheimer opens Friday, July 21, only in movie theaters, via Universal Pictures. Visit the official site for more information. 

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Christopher NolanCillian MurphyDavid KrumholzEmily BluntFlorence PughJosh HartnettOppenheimerRobert Downey Jr.

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