Christopher Nolan delivers his most impressive directorial outing, with Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr giving awards-worthy performances
Film Yap is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Christopher Nolan is the kind of director who doesn’t need an introduction. He started from a more humble beginning before becoming one of the most esteemed filmmakers in Hollywood, from “The Dark Knight,” ”Inception,” and “Dunkirk. Even his more divisive offerings like “Tenet” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” are far from bad movies and have a certain quality to them that puts them well above the generic big-budget studio movie.
After the disastrous rollout of “Tenet,” which led to the auteur leaving his longtime studio home at Warner Bros behind, he’s set up shop at Universal with his riskiest project to date (at least commercially): “Oppenheimer.” While Nolan has ventured into World War II before with “Dunkirk,” his latest is a three-hour-long biopic on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the inventor of the atomic bomb.
One thing about Nolan is that he never directs his films in a conventional way and “Oppenheimer” isn’t a conventional biopic. Similar to what he did with “Memento” and “Dunkirk,” Nolan toys with time to tell the story. There’s a section in color labeled Fisson, which finds J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) being interrogated by government officials for his ties to the Communist party, recalling his professional life (being involved in The Manhattan Project) and his private life (his adultery), which often times collided.
Then there’s the black-and-white section labeled Fusion, where Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr) attempts to be inducted as the Secretary of Commerce. Both of these storylines are seamlessly interlinked as we delve into the psyche of these two men, as well as Oppenheimer’s complicated relationship with his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) and his mistress Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh).
Nolan’s ambition is on full display through every second of the three-hour runtime. Having seen the film in its intended 70mm presentation, my viewing of “Oppenheimer” felt appropriately cinematic. There are no car chases like in “The Dark Knight,” upside-down fights like in “Inception,” or intergalactic voyages like in “Interstellar,” yet Nolan still makes the film as entertaining and enthralling as possible.
Nothing feels fake or haphazardly done, not that Nolan has ever been the kind of filmmaker to phone it in, but it also feels like a natural progression for the filmmaker and not only his most mature and confident outing as a filmmaker to date but also his most impressive.
“Oppenheimer” is flawless on a technical level. Nolan reunited with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who worked with him on all of his films since “Interstellar,” and the result is one of the most visually astounding films you’ll see all year. The editing from Jennifer Lame is also exceptional, making the film’s nonlinear structure feel natural and easy to follow. Academy Award-winning composer Ludwig Göransson continues to top himself with his score for the film which helps paint the haunting and powerful story.
Outside of Nolan’s name, one of the biggest selling points of “Oppenheimer,” is its impressively large cast led by Cillian Murphy. While Murphy has dominated the small screen with his role on “Peaky Blinders,” on the big screen he’s always been more of a supporting player, even in his past collaborations with Nolan.
“Oppenheimer” gives him his biggest and most demanding role to date, and his performance is every bit as perfect as Nolan’s direction. Murphy rightfully plays J. Robert Oppenheimer as a complicated figure, he’s a womanizer with some concerning mental issues but is also one of the most brilliant minds in the world of theoretical physics. We see much of the film through his eyes with Murphy appearing in nearly every single scene in the film (with some very notable exceptions), and he never once has a weak moment.
Just as golden as Murphy is Robert Downey Jr’s turn as Lewis Strauss. After spending the last decade-and-a-half almost exclusively playing Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the occasional “Sherlock Holmes” film,” he’s at long last been given a role that shows he’s more than just Iron Man. Downey’s Strauss appears throughout the film, but he really gets his moments in the film’s third act, giving a performance that could very well earn him an Academy Award.
Emily Blunt is another major stand-out as Kitty Oppenheimer, while she doesn’t get as much screen time as Murphy, she is given several monologues over the course of the film that packs an extra emotional punch. Blunt has long been overdue for an Academy Award nomination and her performance in “Oppenheimer” might finally be the role that lands her one.
Matt Damon gives the exact kind of performance that you’d expect from him as General Leslie Groves Jr. He brings his signature charisma and is responsible for the film’s rare moments of humor.
The rest of the cast features the likes of Florence Pugh, Rami Malek, Casey Affleck, Benny Safdie, Kenneth Branagh, and Josh Hartnett, all of whom turn in exceptional work, even with their limited amounts of screen time. Gary Oldman also makes a surprise appearance in the film, but the role itself is best kept a surprise, although it will likely be one of the film’s most hotly debated moments.
“Oppenheimer’s” three-hour runtime might seem intimidating to many. In many ways it is. It’s a three-hour movie about the creation of the nuclear bomb. It is not the kind of summer crowd-pleaser that most have become accustomed to during this time of year, but Nolan breathes a lot of life into the film’s pacing. The first two and a half hours fly by and while it does start to slow down in the final thirty minutes, the story itself is still completely captivating and feels earned.
“Oppenheimer” is without a doubt one of the best movies you’ll see this year. It’s not just a showcase of Christopher Nolan’s best attributes as a filmmaker nor is it just Cillian Murphy proving himself that he is a leading man.
It feels like an experience, culminating in a finale that feels eerily relevant and timely, not so subtly hinting that it’s very well aware that the weight of the film’s true story is still felt today.