sun 21/07/2024

Oppenheimer review - epic and enthralling study of 'the father of the atomic bomb' | reviews, news & interviews

Oppenheimer review - epic and enthralling study of 'the father of the atomic bomb'

Oppenheimer review - epic and enthralling study of 'the father of the atomic bomb'

Christopher Nolan puts big bang theory into practice

Troubled genius: Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer

With a track record that includes Memento, Dunkirk, Insomnia and Inception, Christopher Nolan is not a filmmaker who could be accused of a lack of ambition, but even by his standards Oppenheimer is a staggering achievement.

Its three-hour running time is a little daunting, but it’s as if Nolan is saying if you want to make the most of this trip, you have to make the commitment. Its historical scope, intellectual depth and sheer cinematic power make Oppenheimer a thing of wonder.

Nolan has based his story of the renowned physicist Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called “father of the atomic bomb”, on the book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006, but he has alchemised the printed word into a multi-dimensional filmic voyage. Nolan makes the slightly startling claim that Oppenheimer is “the most important person who ever lived”, but the way he has framed his subject amidst the turbulent history of the 20th century, with its shifting intellectual currents, catastrophic wars and cataclysmic political upheavals, may persuade you that his claim is not so far-fetched after all.

For Oppenheimer, played with a kind of mercurial and watchful intensity by Cillian Murphy, it’s an emotional and imaginative journey as well as a scientific one. We see him developing from the gifted but gauche young scientist struggling to make his presence felt at Cambridge University, until he’s urged to move on and find pastures new by renowned Danish physicist Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh, in one of the film’s many carefully crafted cameos). Bohr was an important pioneer of quantum theory, a field in which Oppenheimer would excel, and in subsequent European placements Oppenheimer got to know many of the leading European scientists who would later work on nuclear research in the States, or, in the case of Werner Heisenberg, on the Third Reich’s atomic plans.

This international crew of scientists, many of them communists who believed that America should share its atom bomb research with its then-allies the Russians, doesn’t fit entirely comfortably into America’s Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in New Mexico. The Oppenheimer who is chosen by General Leslie Groves to helm the operation to create the bomb has developed into a more enigmatic and multilayered figure, who himself has flirted with left-leaning politics without fully signing up to them. He’s opinionated and stubborn, is prone to sexual promiscuity and has a whimsical indifference to authority, but Groves understands that he’s the man who can corral his unruly band of scientific geniuses to get the fateful bomb over the line. Matt Damon’s portrayal of Groves (pictured above) is another of the film’s mini-marvels, mixing a military can-do approach with wry humour and a pragmatic ability to brush aside past indiscretions in order to get the job done.

The depiction of the first test of the bomb at the Trinity site (pictured below) is a stunning movie-within-a-movie, as “the Gadget” (as it was nicknamed) is hauled into place on its 100-foot tower against an austere backdrop of desert and low, distant hills. Contrary to internet rumours, Nolan didn’t stage a real-life atomic explosion for the movie, but his team have created a fiery and ferocious facsimile “to evoke the requisite threat, awe and horrible beauty of the Trinity test,” as he puts it.

It’s a scientific triumph, and the subsequent demolition of two Japanese cities duly brings an end to World War Two, but Oppenheimer’s jubilation is short-lived. Having previously supported the use of the bomb in the face of protests about its inhumanity (he suggests critics should ask American troops embroiled in the bloodbath of the Pacific war what they think about nuking the Japanese), he’s increasingly gnawed by doubt and guilt. Impressionistic imagery of blinding white light and faces with their skin peeling off evoke the agonies inside Oppenheimer’s head, while brilliant writing for strings in Ludwig Göransson’s soundtrack evokes a world tipping off its axis. Audio effects often venture into the surreal, with the deafening sound of massed marching boots stomping brutally over the drama like a military takeover.

Oppenheimer gets a full-on blast of realpolitik when he visits President Harry Truman (Gary Oldman) at the White House. A doleful Oppenheimer laments that he has “blood on his hands”. Truman, the man who dropped the big one and ended the war, snaps to an aide to get the cry-baby scientist out of his sight. In the pyramid of power, boffins (be they ever so brilliant) sit well below the politicians.

After the war, Oppenheimer became both a revered national icon and a figure of controversy, with the old Communist associations returning to haunt him in the era of McCarthyism and the Cold War. In scenes shot in documentary-style black and white, there’s a powerful, nuanced performance by Robert Downey Jr as Lewis Strauss, from the Atomic Energy Commission, whose embittered persecution of Oppenheimer led to him being hauled before various investigating committees and being stripped of his security clearance.

There’s excellent work, too, from Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, while Florence Pugh plays his ill-fated lover Jean Tatlock. And who could have anticipated Tom Conti’s delightful little turn as Albert Einstein? It's a remarkable film that will embed itself in your imagination, and will surely repay countless viewings.

Its historical scope, intellectual depth and sheer cinematic power make 'Oppenheimer' a thing of wonder


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Explore topics

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters