Film Review: Oppenheimer is a dense, turbulent and immersive experience through one man’s genius psyche

You have to hand it to Christopher Nolan for convincing a major studio to spend $100m (USD) on a 3-hour long drama detailing the development of the atomic bomb and releasing it in the prime film season that is the US summer.

Whilst the film itself will prove drastic counter-programming to its fellow ambitious release buddy, Barbie (long live “Barbenheimer”), audiences should be forewarned that a 3-hour examination on the atomic bomb under the direction of someone as intricate as Nolan is an experience as dense, complicated and mind-numbing as you may expect.

There’s an almost Oliver Stone-like quality to the way Nolan has approached Oppenheimer, offsetting the bigness of his production with an internalised character study and a constant rotation of famous faces all making sure they earn their moment – however brief – in a film that’s predominantly about men talking.

The titular Oppenheimer is that of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, practically leaping into the early Oscar talk with his performance here), a theoretical physicist who found himself tasked with the development of the atomic bomb as World War II started to form in the early 1940’s.  Technical jargon with fellow, dysfunctional geniuses litter large portions of Nolan’s script (based off Kai Baird and Martin J. Sherwin‘s “American Prometheus”) as he forms his creative production team, whilst simultaneously conversing with Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr., possibly the best he’s ever been), an Atomic Energy Commission figure, who will prove more foe than friend as the years eventually roll on.

Oppenheimer’s focus remains solely on building the bomb for the best part of 3 years, recruiting scientists and military types – including Leslie Groves (Matt Damon, injecting much-needed energy into proceedings), a US Army Corps of Engineers officer who oversaw the construction of the Pentagon and was a major directive figure in the atomic bomb research project – and setting them up in New Mexico on a constructed plot dubbed “The Trinity Site”.  Their eventual creation is one of devastation, but the film itself is wise enough to never completely vilify Oppenheimer – he does plenty of that to himself – as he is essentially shut out by the government when wanting to speak his intentions for the legacy of the bomb itself.

Oppenheimer‘s story structure ultimately proves something of a surprise.  As much as this is a film about the atomic bomb’s creation and the man behind it, it adopts a more political thriller temperament as it details the legal aftermath of its ramifications.  At three hours long it seems bizarre to note how much longer Oppenheimer could have been to fully detail its ingredients, as there are important figures in his life that feel remarkably short-changed – though because Oppenheimer’s focus is purely on creating the atomic bomb, this could perhaps be an intentional move on Nolan’s part to highlight everyone else’s insignificance.

The two people in Oppenheimer’s life that feel undone by this structure are his wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), and his lover, Jean (Florence Pugh).  It doesn’t help that these are the two sole female presences in the film – adding to the discourse that Nolan has never been the strongest at writing women – and Pugh, tragically, feels entirely underutilised – despite a committed performance – but Blunt manages to persevere through initial window dressing treatment.  The entanglement of these two women, as well as their communist ties, suggests its own narrative of depth and wealth, furthering the notion of just how much story Nolan had to work with, and that he perhaps aimed for too much inclusion across the board.

Despite the overall underwhelming inclusion of both these women – it’s a shame both talented actresses aren’t afforded more – Oppenheimer still earns its length (as much as the 180 minutes is felt at times) as it breaks down its timeline in a pre and post-Trinity temperament; Nolan also toying with the film’s colour pallet to help differentiate, with Strauss and his complots shot in black-and-white, while Oppenheimer’s POV is presented in colour.  The Trinity mission presents Oppenheimer as more fresh-faced and (initially) hopeful as he prepares for what he believes will put him on the right side of history, creating a weapon that he assumes will end all wars, rather than enhance them.  Post-Trinity, with Oppenheimer visually aged (the makeup work on Murphy is flawless), sees him subjected to a private court hearing regarding the bomb, the specific choices made throughout the creation process, and his supposed ties to communism.  These sequences are some of the film’s strongest and most tense, with Jason Clarke a particular force as Roger Robb, a circuit judge of the United States Court of Appeals, seeking to revoke Oppenheimer’s security clearance and damage his psyche in the process.

At times, Nolan’s insistence on littering his film with familiar faces almost takes away character impact – similar to the “special guest star” mentality employed by David O. Russell in his last feature, Amsterdam – with Kenneth Branagh, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Josh Hartnett and Benny Safdie, to name a few, rearing their mugs throughout to varying degrees of success.  None of them are delivering bad performances, but there’s a certain level of distraction that comes with their weight when tied to a character of minimal exposure; this particularly in the case of Malek.  Perhaps, due to the dialogue-heavy nature of Oppenheimer as a film there’s a certain need to garner more attention from audiences, and recognisable actors assist with such a notion as some viewers may find the film’s frame of mind difficult to sit with.

That being said, the teamwork on hand is impressive, and despite the serious star wattage it all fuses together to maintain a shine on Murphy, with his wide-eyed steeliness forever stealing focus.  J. Robert Oppenheimer doesn’t always exercise the best judgement – particularly when it comes to his sex life (which, for the record, is not presented in the explicit detail early reports had suggested) –  but it’s clear Nolan has a passion for both the man and his experience, and Murphy’s performance further expresses that sympathy across a complicated time in history.

The legal arc of Oppenheimer is ironically when it’s at its best, as the government’s seemingly incessant need to discredit him allows the film to adopt a tense and emotional personality, something that it only comes close to emulating with the sequence of the bomb test itself.  Much has been discussed around Nolan’s statement that the recreation of the explosion was a practical effect, and it is indeed Oppenheimer‘s pièce de résistance, but as it arrives around the film’s 2-hour mark, the remaining hour has no choice but to one-up the aforementioned explosion, and it does so with conversational and reflective sequences that fuel the film’s psychological impact.

Whilst I can’t deny I felt the film’s overall density and 3-hour length at times – and I believe a mini-series temperament would suit this story far more – there’s no taking away from Oppenheimer‘s impact as a piece of cinematic mastery.  Nolan continues to push the boundaries of feature storytelling in a way that transcends the flashy visuals he’s oft adhered to, here with a turbulent, immersive experience that speaks just as much to one man’s paranoia and blemishes as it does his untapped genius.


Oppenheimer is now screening in Australian theatres.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.