Oppenheimer – [Film Review]

Released: July 20, 2023

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr, Florence Pugh

Whether you’re a fan or not it’s hard to argue against the impact that Christopher Nolan has had on the world of cinema. He is among the few rare filmmakers whose films are a cultural milestone unto themselves. Spielberg, Scorsese, Cameron, and Nolan are some of the modern masters who have a cinematic language that is almost instantly recognisable, and legions of fans who will flock to the cinemas to see anything that has their name attached. It doesn’t mean everything they do is above reproach but it occasionally feels like blasphemy to admit they didn’t quite nail it. For me, Nolan has always been hit and miss, and nothing encapsulates this better than Oppenheimer, his latest 3-hour drama detailing the trials and tribulations of the most turbulent years of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life.

Starring Cillian Murphy, whose turn as the titular Oppenheimer will likely see him become well and truly in the mix for a variety of awards, Nolan weaves a tale about Oppenheimer’s role in The Manhattan Project against the setting of two separate hearings – telling the story from numerous points in time and jumping back and forth in typical Nolan fashion. Unfortunately this time it doesn’t particularly help the narrative and what feels like an attempt to show the complexity of the man himself feels more like a jumble of mixed messages and undercooked ideas that ultimately leads to a fairly anti-climatic finale. 

Part of the issue is that Nolan feels that it’s important to try and contextualise the use of nuclear weapons in WW2 but a lack of conviction to drive home any particular message about it. Of course, nuclear weapons are a bad thing but it’s hard to care about the ethical dilemmas of some stiff middle-aged white guys when I’ve already seen the photos of little babies burned by radiation and toddlers carrying the mangled bodies of their siblings in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer, the man, was never too conflicted about the dropping of the bombs but the film wants us to agonise over the part he plays in their existence. We get that there’s a personal toll for people like Oppenheimer but there are bigger stakes at play. Maybe don’t open that door if you don’t have the stomach for a real conversation. 

Oppenheimer features a completely bonkers A-list cast who are all in fine form. Robert Downey Jr. plays Oppenheimer’s nemesis Lewis Strauss where he does his level best to shed the shackles of his precious decade as Marvel’s golden child. It’s a decent performance but he is surrounded by absolutely stellar performances from the likes of Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Alden Ehrenreich – and especially – David Krumholtz who gives a scene-stealing delivery as Isidor Isaac Rabi, Oppenheimer’s friend and Manhattan Project colleague. There are also fantastic appearances from Gary Oldman, Kenneth Branagh, Rami Malek, and more. It’s fun to play spot the famous actor in a small role in these films but it’s even more fun, if you’re a science guy, to play spot the famous scientist. I swear the whole film is like the portal scene in Endgame but for pioneering scientists of the Atomic Age.

Visually the film feels like a spiritual sequel (or prequel) to Interstellar, Nolan’s 2014 sci-fi epic which also had a strong focus on theoretical science. Like Interstellar, Nolan once again pairs with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema who helps to craft the intense burning and explosive visuals used throughout the film. The visuals are pretty but they feel a little flat and fail to inspire the awe and dread that I believe Nolan was aiming for. Maybe the point was the make these terrors feel slightly mechanical in nature to help us see how the military and politicians viewed their use but it doesn’t feel like they’re framed that way.

And framing is important in the film as Nolan employs a differing aesthetic throughout the film to focus on various viewpoints and perhaps even cast some doubt on the legitimacy of what we’re seeing at a particular point in time. Where the black and white scenes of the film are shot in a vaguely documentary style, the main story of the film is shot wider and more vividly which contrasts again with the colder and claustrophobic approach of Oppenheimer’s hearing scenes. This approach works great but a lack of cohesion between the different threads makes it feel a little less impactful and more frustrating than I think was intended.

Overall Oppenheimer is a good movie, but it’s overly long and feels a tad messy. It’s absolutely elevated by its cast and will likely benefit from multiple viewings but for this reviewer, multiple viewings would feel like a bit of a chore. Not his best work, but far from his worst. I have no doubt it will get a tonne of awards buzz but in ten years is anyone really gonna care about it? I guess we will find out…

Review by: Dave Mullins

Rating: 3/5

Oppenheimer is in cinemas now.
Grab your tickets today via Universal Pictures.