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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'Oppenheimer': Christopher Nolan's Bleak, Spectacular Historical Epic

If there are two things you can say about Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker, it is that he is always ambitious, and he never fails to surprise with each film he puts out. Even if you go back to his early work, you see someone who always tries to stretch himself, regardless of the resources at his disposal. After his Dark Knight trilogy put him on the map, he has since become synonymous with massive, complex blockbusters, and rightfully so. While I personally feel that Nolan often works best when he has tighter parameters to work within, it is still exciting to see him do his thing no matter what budget he is given. No matter what, I am always thrilled to see a new Christopher Nolan film, and his latest, Oppenheimer, is no exception. While the idea of him doing a biopic did give me some pause, I still couldn't help but be intrigued by what he might bring to the table. Plus, this is a biopic about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Father of the Atomic Bomb, so I had high hopes that Nolan's penchant for spectacle would marry well with the standard biopic format. What he does with Oppenheimer manages to be just that, and more. The general plot is mostly straightforward, but it is how Nolan and company play with structure, editing, and cinematography that really makes this film soar. It is a heavy, at times overwhelming experience, but it also might be Nolan's magnum opus.

The film depicts J. Robert Oppenheimer's journey from University professor, to his involvement in The Manhattan Project, and the fallout that came from it. But with this being a Nolan film, of course it plays with linear structure. The film jumps around from Oppenheimer's point of view, both in the events leading up to the Trinity test, and in a hearing following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and outside his perspective through scenes using black and white photography. Through it all, we see Oppenheimer's rise to prominence, but we also see how he wrestles with the gravity of what he has created, and its larger ramifications.

I'll admit that I'm pretty burnt out on biopics, but Oppenheimer isn't your run-of-the-mill biopic. While this is mainly due to the editing and visual style of the film, a lot of its inventiveness can be found in the script. Nolan's scripts are consistently good, but this might be his strongest screenplay in many years. It presents Oppenheimer's life and accomplishments without romanticizing them, and does not shy away from how complicated the actual Oppenheimer was. It is clear that Nolan is not interested in lionizing him, and instead wants to portray him as a complex human being. This is an excellent choice on his part, as it allows the viewer to get in Oppenheimer's head and go along with him on the emotional journey he takes over the course of the film. In addition to the characterization of Oppenheimer, the dialogue is quite solid. This is one of Nolan's most dialogue heavy films, and while there is a lot of jargon and discussion of things that most audiences might not find all that interesting, it ends up flowing quite well and kept me invested throughout. I tend to feel that Nolan is a stronger director than he is a writer (although I think he is exceptional at both), but he absolutely knocks it out of the park with this screenplay.

Nolan's direction never disappoints, but you can truly feel his passion and craftsmanship in every frame of Oppenheimer. Even though I pretty much knew where the film was going (it's based on real events, after all), I was still on the edge of my seat for much of it. The non-linear storytelling is a major cause of this, but the tension and atmosphere that Nolan cultivates is what really grabbed me. The centerpiece of the whole film is the Trinity test sequence, which is some of Nolan's best work on its own. The use of sound, visual effects, and the way it is edited is pure brilliance. I also liked how Nolan incorporated some more abstract creative choices all throughout the film, which occasionally blurs the line between reality and fantasy. One sequence where Oppenheimer is at a press conference especially took me aback, and is so perfectly deployed. I would go as far to say that this might be Nolan's strongest effort as a director, and proves that no one does it like him.

On a purely technical level, this film is breathtaking. The production design and visual effects teams do an amazing job (especially in the Manhattan Project stretches of the film), and make us feel the magnitude of what Oppenheimer is going through. Hoyte van Hoytema's camerawork is also immaculate, and he nails the contrast between the more uneasy POV that Oppenheimer has in the color sequences and the more objective, tense one in the black and white sequences. van Hoytema is easily one of my favorite cinematographers working today, and this film further cements this. I was also blown away by Jennifer Lame's editing, which truly keeps the momentum of the film going. There are also certain choices that seem unconventional, but serves the film so well in practice. Ludwig Göransson's score is also incredible, and proves that he is a great match for Nolan. This might be his best score ever, and is hands down the best score I've heard in any movie so far this year.

Cillian Murphy has been a longtime collaborator of Nolan's, and while his supporting work in his films has been great, it is so exciting to see him get a chance to shine as the lead. Murphy gives a rather internal performance, which allows Oppenheimer to feel like an actual human. Most biopic performances tend to feel a bit melodramatic, but Murphy is much more grounded, which serves the film perfectly. It allows the emotional gut-punches to hit even stronger, and drives home the reality of the Manhattan Project. It's a great change of pace from the more rose-colored view of history that some biopics offer, and left a much larger impact on me as a result. Murphy is just so in the pocket here, and it might honestly be his best performance ever. His work is rather controlled and might not be very showy, but it is undoubtedly one of the most affecting and strongest performances I've seen so far this year.

In addition to Murphy, the film boasts a deep bench of a supporting cast. With the exception of Gary Oldman's hammy take on Harry Truman, there's not really a bad performance in the bunch. Robert Downey Jr. gives his best performance in years as Lewis Strauss, an adversarial figure in Oppenheimer's life. It's so great to see RDJ in a non-Marvel movie, and his performance as Strauss shows what he is capable of when given the right material. Florence Pugh is also great in a smaller, yet pivotal role as Jean Tatlock, who Oppenheimer shares a brief romance with. There is such power in her performance, and the way she characterizes her feelings for Oppenheimer is fascinating to watch. Emily Blunt is also quite great as Oppenheimer's wife, Kitty. She takes what could have been a thankless role and breathes life into it. I was also highly impressed by David Krumholtz, Alden Ehrenreich, Jason Clarke, Josh Hartnett, and Rami Malek's performances, as they each deliver standout work here. This might end up being one of the best supporting casts of the year, and it is impressive that Nolan was able to get so many genuinely great performances in one film.

Oppenheimer is a bit of a dense text, mainly due to all of the underlying ideas and themes that Nolan packs in, but it has a lingering effect that also makes it one of the most powerful and thought-provoking films of the year. It takes a hard look at Oppenheimer and his work on the Manhattan Project, and engages deeply with the consequences that came from it. This film is an absolute masterpiece on every level, and left me gobsmacked. It's the type of film that I feel will only improve with more viewings, as it has so much to chew on. This is undoubtedly one of Nolan's best films, and it just might be one of the greatest films of the 2020s. This is such an ambitious and masterful film all around, and once again shows that no one is making films like Christopher Nolan.

Rating: 5/5

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