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Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer

Cillian Murphy in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (2023)

The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer is “central to the way in which we live now and the way we are going to live forever,” Christopher Nolan tells Dennis Overbye in the New York Times. “It absolutely changed the world in a way that no one else has changed the world. You talk about the advent of the printing press or something. He gave the world the power to destroy itself. No one has done that before.”

Based on Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography American Prometheus (2005), Nolan’s Oppenheimer is “an experiment in immersion,” writes Fred Kaplan at Slate, “an attempt to make us feel what it’s like to be Robert Oppenheimer, and it succeeds to a remarkable degree.” For Slant’s Jake Cole, the movie feels “as if it’s radiating outward from its main character’s very psyche.”

Nolan wrote the screenplay in the first person, weaving back and forth between three threads. In one, the brilliant young physicist is tapped by Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), the director of the Manhattan Project, to set up and run the Los Alamos Laboratory, where a team of America’s best and brightest raced against the Nazis to create the world’s first atomic bomb. Cillian Murphy plays Oppenheimer across four decades, and his “faraway gaze not only convinces you that he can actually see the invisible power that crackles between subatomic particles, but also the gravest, most unforgivable consequences of his unleashing it upon the world,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin.

Another thread draws from transcripts of the 1954 hearing in which Oppenheimer, suspected of harboring communist sympathies, was stripped of his security clearance. The third storyline, shot in black and white, centers on the animosity between Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission played by Robert Downey Jr., whose performance, “equal parts subtly scented aftershave and snake oil, is a double-dealing marvel,” writes Time’s Stephanie Zacharek.

“Unexpectedly,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter, “I found it was the late-action intrigue—parallel strands unfolding in a dingy Capitol Hill conference room and in the Senate chamber—that left me breathlessly anticipating each new development, each betrayal and show of loyalty, each disclosure of who was pulling the strings.”

Nolan and Murphy’s Oppenheimer is “a polymath and a polyglot, a lover of art and literature as well as science,” writes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “He is visionary and short-sighted, arrogant and convivial, an academic and an outdoorsman, a family man and a womanizer, a defender of the working class and a man of undisguised privilege. Trying to unpack a tricky quantum mechanics concept for a Berkeley student, he notes, ‘It’s a paradox, but it works,’ an assessment that might just as well describe himself and this movie.”

“One of the film’s pleasures is experiencing by proxy the kinetic excitement of intellectual discourse,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, and Little White LiesDavid Jenkins finds that Oppenheimer “travels at the speed of Oliver Stone’s JFK.” Writing for Sight and Sound, Jonathan Romney suggests that for “all its scholarly seriousness, Nolan’s script can’t avoid getting lost in the cornfield of famous-name drama (‘Have you met Dr. Gödel?’). Corridors-of-power expositions stretch for miles; party conversations begin, ‘I hear you’re working on a radical new approach . . .’ But it’s when, amid the stilted talk, Oppenheimer uses purely cinematic effects that it’s really on to something.”

Like Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), Oppenheimer “teaches viewers how to watch it,” writes Keith Phipps at the Reveal. “Details cohere into patterns. Dots get connected. Characters first glimpsed in the background come into focus.” For Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com, it “seems possible that Oppenheimer could retrospectively seem like a turning point in the director’s filmography, when he takes all of the stylistic and technical practices that he’d been honing for the previous twenty years in intellectualized pulp blockbusters and turns them inward, using them to explore the innermost recesses of the mind and heart, not just to move human pieces around on a series of interlinked, multi-dimensional storytelling boards.”

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