Christopher Nolan is one of my favorite filmmakers; his attention to detail, tone, acting, production sets, and sound is always a delight. “Inception” (2010), “The Dark Knight”(2008), “Dunkirk” (2017), and “The Dark Knight Rises”(2012) come to mind when I look back on his memorable films. He’s set the bar high for himself by tackling Robert Oppenheimer’s life as an experimental physicist who ended up creating the atomic bomb and taking the blame for its horrendous results. His casting of Cillian Murphy, known for “Peaky Blinders” British TV series 2013, was a brilliant choice as his nuanced performance is exceptional. I enjoyed this historical film immensely and have forgiven its three-hour run-time, as to have an up close and personal look at history in the making is indeed a treat.
Based on the 2005 Pulitzer Price-winning biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, the film unfolds in two separate ways; the black-and-white sections detail the ‘past’ struggles of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.) in a fantastic portrayal, to be confirmed as Secretary of Commerce. He’s interrogated about his former support of Oppenheimer, who was controversial as of 1959. He would become the first candidate denied approval if his answers didn’t satisfy the Senate committee members. We are privy to his constant badgering and the seriousness of his past actions.
The color sections show Oppenheimer’s life, most notably his torrid affair with Communist Party USA member Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) and his somewhat unsteady marriage to his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt). The development of the atomic bomb is the main focus, as well as his constant conflicts and alliances with Manhattan Project director Leslie Groves (Matt Damon). We also learn of the building of a town in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where scientists will live and work while the bomb is perfected to test the bomb there eventually. The color and black and white scenes are flashbacks simultaneously as Oppenheimer is being interrogated by a special committee that will decide if his security clearance will be renewed. Yes, this is a lot to take in a while viewing a film, although soon, the pace allows for settling in with expectations of the following scenes.
Of course, the cornerstone is the actual assembly and testing of the atomic bomb. The supporting cast gives an incredible performance, an almost unrecognizable Robert Downey, Jr. as Strauss departs from himself to totally embody his character. Florence Pugh’s role as the needy yet unstable other woman is fascinating to view. Yes, they have steamy love scenes, although they are important as we begin to see the conflicted moral compass of a genius, the total portrait of a human being. He has his hands full, appeasing his wife, Emily Blunt, as she’s scored yet, faithful, filling her anger and jealousy with binge drinking. Her volatile yet loving relationship with Oppenheimer is well-developed and intriguing to view.
Nolan does achieve his goal of relentless ticking-clock suspense in how he approaches the movie overall. Each scene is played for full dramatic effect, especially in the race to build an A-bomb before Nazi Germany does. When the final test occurs, the sound is what stays with me—the stop-motion of history before us is chilling in his spot-on timing and visual effects. Look for an Academy Award for sound; no other movie can top it.
As I have written and taught a unit of study of Albert Einstein and his contribution to the making of the atomic bomb, I appreciated the in-depth portrait of Oppenheimer, including his early beginnings in his college years. We are privy to his psyche and his personality as Nolan sets up scenes as if to dare us to predict how Oppenheimer will react. After three hours of viewing, you will understand this person and his drive for success. I can highly recommend it as you’ll learn a wealth of information while being artfully entertained.
Sarah Knight Adamson© August 13, 2023