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Oppenheimer ★★★★★



Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, Jason Clarke, Josh Hartnett,  Kenneth Branagh, Florence Pugh, James D’Arcy, Tom Conti, Matthew Modine, Dane DeHaan & Rami Malek

Release: July 21st 2023

“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

It’s a ‘mic-drop’ moment in Christopher Nolan’s latest film – Oppenheimer. When these words are chillingly stated, flowing in a haunting sea of atomic explosions, it’s the visceral accumulation on the power of the human mind and what it is capable of. In Nolan’s Promethean epic, it’s the constant wrestling between beauty and destruction. 

Based on the book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, the power of belief has always been an instrumental tool in Nolan’s work, characters embarking on a psychological crusade/mission to achieve the impossible. In Batman Begins, it was Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) transforming himself from a man into an incorruptible symbol – an ideal. In TENET (an indirect foretelling on the path towards Oppenheimer), The Protagonist (John David Washington) fights for the future. But perhaps, The Prestige (Nolan’s best film) is its closest identifier – a journey between two men absorbed in an endless egotistical battle of moral choices that sacrifices their friendship until the ultimate price is paid. If anything, Nolan always dares to ask the question: what is the accountability of such belief?

It comes as no surprise that Nolan has reached the apex of such an ideology with Oppenheimer. Known as the father of the atomic bomb, the science in its creation – a detonation that led to the aerial bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – changed the world. “A new world,” as the film claims, and it’s Nolan’s most powerful work to date. 

It would be a mistake to think of this as a ‘by the numbers’ biopic on the legacy of Robert J. Oppenheimer with Cillian Murphy in the titular role, chronicling from his breakthrough with quantum mechanics to the detonation of the bomb. In classic Nolan fashion, nothing is ever done by half-measures! Converging between Fission (colour) and Fusion (black and white), the story embarks on a narrative of perspectives. Colour is reserved for Oppenheimer, while black and white is from the viewpoint of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.).

The fascination of those perspectives is the presentation without judgement, leaving audiences to make their own decision. It interweaves around the evolution of the Manhattan Project, political allegiances, and the Cold War paranoia of McCarthyism to the eventual courtroom drama on its legacy. Through one gaze, Oppenheimer was a scientific rockstar: a rule-breaking genius that ‘Avengers Assembled’ the best scientists to join his team in heroic valour and helped end the Second World War. Through this critic’s gaze, the response is far more critical, depicting shades of ambitious ego, self-importance and extreme naivety who habitually turns a blind eye to the 4D chess manoeuvres being played around him.  

This is Nolan in his element. Capturing the “the good, the bad and the ugly” with Oppenheimer’s motivations allows the script (which he wrote) to take complex agendas of wonder and brilliance. Still, it leaves the open and fearful realisation of ‘how much is too much power when white people (because let’s be honest) operate in their own siloed worlds’, and empathy is reduced to a footnote? There’s nothing more chilling than hearing a character list out Japanese bombing locations and argue about taking Kyoto off the map because he honeymooned with his wife there. This coldness generates the necessary tension throughout, igniting, like the atom bomb itself, the evils of capitalism.

And it culminates into the fiery centrepiece – the Trinity Test detonation. The continued technical advocacy for the IMAX format shines through with its 70mm print. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography once again captures the scale of an incredible experience. You feel as if Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life was a visual inspiration. Whenever Oppenheimer explains the theory behind the science, the screen cuts to an intense collision of atoms (an image that haunts him throughout the film). The sound design alongside Ludwig Göransson’s score is impeccable. And for a three-hour film with dense scientific dialogue, it doesn’t feel its weight thanks to Jennifer Lame’s sharp editing.

With his piercing blue eyes, Murphy delivers an outstanding performance as the morally tortured American scientist. As a frequent collaborator with Nolan, the reward of his first leading role deserves recognition for playing all the characteristics of Oppenheimer’s troubled and conflicted psyche. It’s highpoint – a victory speech surrounded by emotional dissonance as crowds celebrate the end of the war.

As for Robert Downey Jr., it’s no wonder he considers this his best career role. As Strauss, it’s the art of manipulation to discredit Oppenheimer’s credibility. Whilst the female characters could always be better under Nolan’s filmography, Emily Blunt’s steely performance as Kitty Oppenheimer marks a steady improvement.

Operating at the peak of his powers, Oppenheimer is Nolan’s crowning achievement as a filmmaker, capturing the moral existentialism of the human condition and the terrifying imaginings of the arrogance of power—one of the best of the year.

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