Oppenheimer: A Brutal Blockbuster Biopic


Darcy McBrinn interrogates Christopher Nolan’s latest masterpiece

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By Darcy McBrinn

Historically, films about World War II seem to have centred upon its soldiers, grand battles, and its iron-willed politicians. However, in much the same vein as 2014’s The Imitation Game, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer chooses instead to focus on the often overlooked figures in cinema – its scientists. The Alan Turing biopic was a retelling of the story behind the cracking of the Enigma code – with Turing simply at the forefront. Yet this is not the case with Oppenheimer, Nolan instead choosing to focus squarely on the “father of the atomic bomb” himself, J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Based on Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s biography American Prometheus, the film spans across Oppenheimer’s life, from his fledgling ideas of theoretical physics at university to his ultimate retirement from the public gaze. With the backdrop of the Manhattan Project’s race against the Nazis to develop the atomic bomb – Oppenheimer acting as the director of the project’s central laboratory – the film is interwoven with interrogations of Oppenheimer and his colleagues a decade later.

At just over three hours long, Oppenheimer’s runtime can seem initially daunting, yet the film never once drags – even with the dialogue-heavy (both in volume and subject matter) nature of the film. The pacing is consistently quick and the dialogue equally sharp. As a result, Oppenheimer remains incredibly gripping throughout. On the flip side of this, due to just how dense the screenplay is, each line feels vital. If you were to zone out at any point – an easy thing to do considering its length – a lot of cinematic genius can be completely missed. The swift pacing only intensifies this potential issue, but all in all it works to the film’s advantage.

Despite the history of America’s invention of the atomic bomb and its use against Japan being widely known, a great sense of tension and intrigue persists throughout the film. The apex of this can be found in what is undoubtedly Nolan’s greatest set piece within the film, the Trinity sequence which recreates the first tested detonation of the atomic bomb. I’ve never experienced such a piercing and undisturbed silence in a cinema. The room was unbelievably tense, as the audience seemed to be sucked into the exact same feeling of wonder and terror that Oppenheimer and his colleagues were experiencing. The sound design within this section was impeccable; the silence of raw anticipation directly juxtaposed with the anticipated unholy boom of the blast. It was a breath-taking scene, this alone making the entire viewing experience worth it.

But as I suggested, this does all just serve as the backdrop – Oppenheimer is most interested in the morality of the man behind the bomb. It is a deeply character-driven film above all else, and fittingly, Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of the titular physicist is outstanding. Unlike actors who attempt to outshine the rest of the film – figures like Jack Nicholson or Leonardo DiCaprio – Murphy blends into the film. This may initially appear as a criticism, but it is this authentic performance that elevates the film. It is profoundly natural, lending the work a unique, documentary-like quality. I truly forgot that I wasn’t watching the real J. Robert Oppenheimer himself.

Beyond just Murphy, the film boasts a great ensemble cast, with everyone from Sir Kenneth Branagh to Jack Quaid of The Boys fame. The core supporting actors, with Matt Damon as General Lesile Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, and Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock, Oppenheimer’s troublesome long-time lover. As expected, both give incredibly engaging performances, yet ultimately it is Robert Downey Jr. who shines the brightest from the supporting cast. Since 2008, Downey has been defined by his role as the superhero Iron Man. But his performance as Lewis Strauss is a great departure from his recent comic book past and displays a range that stretches far beyond the limits that the Marvel franchise has held over him.

Oppenheimer is a brutal film, with an understandably intimidating runtime, but one that is absolutely worth every second. The film constantly examines and deconstructs its protagonist, in the hope of answering one simple question - is Oppenheimer’s greatest achievement also humanity’s greatest catastrophe? And I would urge everyone to see the film and decide for themselves.