‘Oppenheimer’ Review: A Near-Masterpiece of Well-Acted and Visually Captivating Historical Biopic

oppenheimer review

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How do you make an interesting three-hour biopic with characters mostly talking and debating? Or, more importantly, a movie that doesn’t end up with you checking your watch or phone’s clock app, wondering when is it going to be over. This got me thinking long before Christopher Nolan’s highly-anticipated latest feature of ‘Oppenheimer’ hits theaters in the same week with another potential box-office juggernaut ‘Barbie’, or better known as the ‘Barbenheimer’ phenomenon.

‘Oppenheimer,’ of course, refers to J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy in a rare leading turn in a Christopher Nolan’s film), the American theoretical physicist infamously responsible for creating the world’s first atomic bomb during World War II. Nolan previously tackled the World War II subject six years ago in ‘Dunkirk,’ which was uniquely told in a non-linear perspective from three locations takes place in land, air, and sea.

Whereas ‘Dunkirk’ is more of a minimalist action-oriented war drama, ‘Oppenheimer’ was an antithesis of that 2017 World War II epic – narratively dense and heavy with dialogues. At the hands of a lesser director, it’s easy to dismiss that ‘Oppenheimer’ would suffer from a bloated or heavy-handed runtime desperately needing tighter editing.

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Thankfully, this isn’t the case — well, most of it anyway — for Christopher Nolan, who again adopts a non-linear storytelling approach to tell his story (he received the sole writing credit inspired by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s 2005 biography of ‘American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer’). Nolan flipped his film back and forth between color and black and white, detailing the rise and fall of J. Robert Oppenheimer from his earlier days in the 1920s.

The period when then-young Oppenheimer is still a student majoring in physics. He gets to know the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh in an outstanding cameo appearance). Even in his younger days, Oppenheimer is seen as a lonely person with his mind regularly interrupted by fragmented visions of light, particles, and atoms.

The movie also focuses on Oppenheimer and his team of physicists (among them played by Josh Hartnett, Benny Safdie, and Devon Bostick) being recruited to work on the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. It was a program that General Leslie Groves (a scene-stealing Matt Damon) oversaw everything from the research to the security related to the creation of the atomic bomb.

The introduction of Damon’s General Leslie Groves and the race-against-time scenario of succeeding the first atomic bomb ever made showcases Nolan’s directorial flair of pacing his film like a ticking timebomb. A buildup that grows increasingly tense and suspenseful.

Coupled with Ludwig Göransson’s ominous score, we see Oppenheimer and his fellow physicists going into every possible detail, from theorizing in the subject matter of quantum physics to practically assembling an atomic bomb.

This leads to the eventual and crucial first detonation of a nuclear test code-named Trinity set in the sweeping vistas of New Mexico’s Los Alamos desert. The atomic blast, which is reportedly executed practically with no CGI, is a visual marvel of the fiery big bang, blinding white light, mushroom cloud, and the sublime use of sound. The latter is where Nolan emphasized the most, combining loud and ear-shattering explosion effects with complete silence, highlighting Oppenheimer’s state of mind and sense of awe.

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Hoyte van Hoytema, who has collaborated with Nolan since ‘Interstellar’ (2014), does a splendid job of shooting the film with IMAX cameras. His cinematography isn’t just epic in its visual spectacle but also profoundly intimate when it comes to capturing the characters’ facial expressions, mostly in close-ups.

This, in turn, allows Nolan to bring out the best in some of his actors, notably Cillian Murphy’s award-worthy role as J. Robert Oppenheimer. His expressive eyes speak a thousand words, and the way Murphy inhabits his real-life character results in a mesmerizing performance. Come Oscar time; it would be a crime not to place him as one of the frontrunners in the Best Actor category.

While I’m glad Nolan finally gave Murphy a chance to lead his film after years of playing supporting roles since ‘Batman Begins,’ the rest of the all-star cast is no slouch either. Apart from the aforementioned Kenneth Branagh and Matt Damon, others such as Robert Downey Jr.’s sneakily manipulative Atomic Energy Commission (A.E.C.) Chair Lewis Strauss and Jason Clarke’s no-nonsense Special Counsel Roger Robb deserve equal mentions.

And although ‘Oppenheimer’ is a predominantly male-centric film, Nolan also doesn’t forget to let the female co-stars shine. This is especially true with Emily Blunt, who plays Oppenheimer’s estranged, alcoholic wife, Kitty, while Florence Pugh made the best use of her limited screen time as Oppenheimer’s mistress, Jean Tatlock.

Jennifer Lame’s crafty editing helps to keep the narrative flowing intriguingly. But once the Trinity nuclear test is over, the remainder of the film slips through the cracks. It’s not like the acting performances begin to dwindle, but more of Nolan’s arduous approach in depicting the aftermaths of the Trinity nuclear test and the subsequent atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ultimately defeated the Japanese in World War II.

It was as if Nolan struggled to maintain a consistent momentum as the movie shifted focus to the controversial hearings revolving around Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss.

But such a shortcoming remains forgivable, given the film’s compelling narrative structure and Nolan’s impressive use of sight and sound. Not to forget, great performances all around, making ‘Oppenheimer’ one of the best and must-see films of 2023.

SCORE: 8/10

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