Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is the cinematic peak of the trajectory of all his previous works. Moving back to his days of in-depth character studies of troubled humans, such as Memento (Nolan, 2000), and taming down the fast-paced action and focusing more on details and scale, Nolan explores the tormented span of the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer starting from his time spent in Cambridge to receiving a medal of honour after PTSD and post-explosion depression. To follow the story of the man who created the atomic bomb, the bomb meant to end all wars, dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 appears to be a mammoth task, and this translated potently onto the screen in what may be the most suspense-filled, viscerally overwhelming, emotional spectacle in Nolan’s filmography to date.
The outstanding work by lead Cillian Murphy as Robert Oppenheimer and his supporting cast clearly displayed months of archival footage study, physical transformations, and emotional exploration to exhibit minute details, which created multiple Academy Award-worthy performances. For example, Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Lewis Strauss, in my opinion, is a performance second only to Cillian Murphy, marking one of Downey’s greatest performances of his career. The narcissistic, self-indulged slyness he portrayed throughout brilliantly depicted a man filled with deep insecurity and powerful ambitions. He manages to portray Strauss as a complicated and compelling villain, without overdramatizing his position as the antagonist or giving away too much about the future impact of his flawed character too early.
To limit a review of this picture to simply the cast’s performance would be an outrage, as a significant element of the film’s success arises in its sound design and musical score. The score, created by Ludwig Göransson, marked a landslide victory, reigning beside Hans Zimmer’s perfection in Interstellar (Nolan, 2014) as one of Nolan’s best scores. Not only was it emotionally engaging and building tension from the very first minute of the film, but it was also so cleverly designed to accompany the moments of extended silence, particularly as the test bomb was dropped. This sequence in particular had hearts racing and anxiety building, putting you directly into not only Oppenheimer’s subjective experience of witnessing the imminent consequences of his invention but also in the minds of the other scientists. Their lives were also at risk, they knew there was that minute possibility (“near zero”) that it could destroy the world. This fact indeed gave us one of few comedic breaks in a very intense, dialogue-heavy picture, with Matt Damon’s character General Leslie Groves responding to Oppenheimer’s comment “What more do you want from theory alone?” with “Zero, would be nice”. It gave a touch of true humanity to a very larger-than-us situation.
Moreover, the sound design in the aforementioned sequence ingeniously opted for silence as the bomb detonated, providing the audience with the most raw, intimate image of the weight of stress and tension on Oppenheimer’s shoulders. In this race to beat the Nazis in the fight for nuclear warfare, it was a release of the first stage of Oppenheimer’s fears, as he now knew that the test was a success. Then, as the sonic boom sound wave hit and everyone realised it was successful, the sound picked up again. Now, Oppenheimer faces the loud weight of this anti-hero celebrity persona awaiting him in the coming days, months, and years.
In true Christopher Nolan style, the picture was filmed completely practically, with a distinct lack of CGI. Where this was most visually impressive was in the Trinity test itself. Whilst Nolan has kept the exact details of how he accomplished this feat to himself, he did suggest that the filmmaking crew used a combination of small explosions made to look big and very large explosions out in desolate and open spaces. During these scenes, you quite literally feel engulfed in the flames in front of you and having the knowledge that it isn’t computer generated adds to a significantly more impressive and immersive experience. In combination with shooting on 70mm IMAX film, the visual effects were undoubtedly some of the best seen in recent years.
For Nolan, time is something he consistently explores, warps, and manipulates throughout his filmography, with Oppenheimer being no exception. In the simplest description, his span of a lifetime is in a non-linear format, going back and forth between pre-1945 and post-1945 events. However, most ingeniously, his use of two different and opposing historical perspectives, that of Oppenheimer and of Lewis Strauss (played by Robert Downey Jr.), allows for constant audience engagement, expanding on the structure of the biopic. It’s an experimental effort not to only give one perspective, making you, as the viewer, question and challenge Oppenheimer’s position as well as the integrity of the other characters. A particularly well-done scene to this effect was the sit-down with multiple scientists around the circular table with a large vase of flowers in the centre after discovering that Russia may have their own atomic bomb, shot in black and white IMAX to distinguish the subjective perspective of Strauss from Oppenheimer’s point of view. We feel like we are now subjectively observing Oppenheimer; we are fully immersed in this immense sit-down disagreement over the H-bomb and the use of nuclear bombs in general. With delicate and deliberate circling camera work and the invasive flowers being moved around, obstructing each character’s view of Oppenheimer was a clever touch that made the viewer question if we truly are seeing his real intentions. We observe him in intimate detail throughout the film but are finally separated and disconnected from the colourful sequences in which we are ingrained in Oppenheimer’s personal experience.
In a film about the deadliest weapon ever used in warfare that used physical bombs and impressive visual graphics and sound on massive scales, perhaps some of the most intense and impactful scenes were those inter-cut throughout Oppenheimer’s interrogations in the boardroom about his many Communist connections. In one particular scene where the tension and questioning have built up so dramatically that Oppenheimer appears as though he is about to break, we get this climatic effect of the walls around him shaking, then suddenly the room fills with poignant white lights. This perfectly depicts Oppenheimer’s PTSD, as the questioning is literally making him relive this unbelievable moment, his invention still weighing on him, and this time it exploded. As a viewer, you physically feel the build-up, the tension of the bomb dropping and the anxiety of Oppenheimer in his interrogations as a potential Russian spy, in a magnificent spectacle. Here, I would also point to a scene in which everyone is celebrating the success of the bombing, with Oppenheimer receiving applause and accolades from a roaring audience. The sound design here worked in a similarly effective way, using muffled quiet to reflect Oppenheimer’s confused and trauma-filled mental state. He relives the bombing again with the sound of the audience, growing louder and louder but more muffled and confused.
Oppenheimer was a visceral, visual, aural masterpiece and accumulation of all of Nolan’s past work, becoming one of the best historical character studies in cinematic history, able to hold an audience's gaze for its entirety. His choices in including seemingly irrelevant plotlines from American Prometheus, specifically in Jean Tatlock’s (played by Florence Pugh) influence in Oppenheimer’s life as that inch of pure intimacy and vulnerability amid his celebrity status and pressure-filled work, truly elevated the film from simply a documentary style drama, giving you the facts in a dramatic fashion. It became art, it became a bodily experience that must be seen on the big screen. In 70mm IMAX, the detail was so fine that you could see every pore, tear, and particle throughout every frame. The result is a masterpiece of practical filmmaking, engineering, acting and storytelling to be held at the very front of Nolan's collective filmography.
Edited by Martha Knox, Co-Film & TV