Oppenheimer Movie Review

Is it the Best Picture frontrunner?
Oppenheimer(Universal Pictures)
Published: Aug. 4, 2023 at 3:40 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 7, 2023 at 11:56 AM EDT
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Oppenheimer Movie Review

Let’s all be thankful for Christopher Nolan, one of the smartest and most talented filmmakers working today. Yes, I am grateful, but often I have not felt smart enough to completely understand a Nolan film. My favorite film of his is Dunkirk, which is just as elusive as his other films, but worked like a great visual poem. One of Nolan’s greatest talents is his ability to tell a story non-chronologically, this has been one of the problems I have had in understanding his stories. Oppenheimer follows this story telling technique, but I had no trouble following along.

Cillian Murphy in a complex tour-de-force plays the complicated, brilliant Robert J. Oppenheimer, who was known as the “father of the atomic bomb.” When General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) recruits Oppenheimer to head up the building of the bomb in Los Almos, he remarks you once said you couldn’t run a hamburger stand, Oppenheimer quips back, “yes but I can run an atomic bomb building site.” From 1942 to 1945 the US military and a group of scientists spent over a billion dollars to invent, design and build a working atomic bomb in remote New Mexico, where an entire community was built. Originally spurned on by the fear that the Nazi’s were developing an atomic bomb, and originally planned to be used on Germany, not Japan; when the Nazi’s surrender before the bomb has been effectively tested, the rest is history.

Oppenheimer is dazzling in its scope, psychological complexity, historical importance, and moral ambiguity. Packed with amazing performances from great actors who are barely recognizable, and full of sensational technique, it is one of the best feature films of the year. It manages to be epic, yet psychologically intimate and emotionally involving at the same time. This reminds me, happily, of great filmmakers like David Lean and William Wyler. At three hours long, it is a big ask, especially today when most viewers can’t focus for more than ten minutes, but the importance and effect of the atomic bomb on the nearly eighty years that have passed since it was detonated warrants this. The film kept my interest the entire time, but I did feel tension deflate a bit after the bomb was successfully built (not a spoiler alert, because you should know your American History). However, everything that happens after the bomb is finished is so important to the story and features some of Robert Downey Jr.’s best work as the villainous Lewis Strauss. Furthermore, there is something very American about wild success that is followed by devastating failure. The idea of someone being lauded and admired one day then hated and marginalized the next is creepily relevant today.

Emily Blunt ditches her sunny good girl image and goes dark as Kitty, Oppenheimer’s wife, who carries a flask and is rarely sober. She brings much more than bitterness to a role that is a bit underwritten. Even darker is Florence Pugh as one of Oppenheimer’s mistresses whose communist ties do nothing for his career. She’s a troubled soul. One of my favorite performances is from a withered, but soulful Matthew Modine, who plays one of Oppenheimer’s stalwart allies, Dr. Bush.

Biopics rarely succeed because they fail to encompass the depth of a person’s life, lack dramatic momentum, or shed any psychological light on the character. This film is a glorious exception.