Most of the time when a movie is too ambitious and tries to do too much the result is a hot mess. In those instances, I applaud the filmmaker’s effort and then quickly forget about the whole thing.
But what if they pull it off? What if a filmmaker takes a massive swing and sticks the landing? If a movie stands before you like a giant house of cards that refuses to topple over, all you can do is step back and marvel at it.
Such is the case with “Oppenheimer,” Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus about J. Robert Oppenheimer and his part in overseeing the development of the atomic bomb.
“Oppenheimer” is really three different films rolled into one. One part is a straight-up biopic about what a brilliant, complex, egotistical, flawed, glorious weirdo Oppenheimer was. He is played by Cillian Murphy, an intense actor who reliably leaves it all on the table.
Here he dials it back on the surface, seeming calm and collected throughout while internally the conflict between scientific achievement and unleashing the most devastating weapon humanity has ever known constantly threatens to bubble over. It’s as Academy-Award-worthy of a performance as it gets.
The second part is a historical thriller as Oppenheimer and his gaggle of scientists convene at Los Alamos, New Mexico under the watchful eye of General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon). We see the members of the famed Manhattan Project scramble in an intense race against time to complete the bomb before the Nazis do, all under a claustrophobic shroud of secrecy.
The final part is a political potboiler that takes place after the war as Oppenheimer begins to speak out against nuclear proliferation and grapples with his legacy while his government attempts to discredit and silence him.
This all plays out against the backdrop of a Senate confirmation hearing for Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), the former head of the Atomic Energy Commission who worked closely with Oppenheimer after the war.
Downey is as good as he’s ever been as Strauss, filling him with pathos and bile to the point you don’t know what to expect from him. This is a reintroduction to Downey as an accomplished dramatic actor after years in the superhero playpen. Expect his name to be mentioned during the Academy Awards as well.
But even with such a phenomenal and deep cast (which is another testament to Nolan’s pull as he was able to get Oscar winners to come in and read five lines of dialogue), “Oppenheimer” is Nolan’s baby.
He mushes all three “films” together and somehow, not only does it makes sense, it sings.
Nolan is an accomplished visual filmmaker, and while there are plenty of astonishing things to look at in this movie, one of the main reasons I would say it is important to see “Oppenheimer” in a theater is to fully appreciate Nolan’s use of sound. You can feel the concussive blasts as Nolan assaults you with the dread and awesome horror of a nuclear explosion.
“Oppenheimer” is a master work from a filmmaker at the top of his craft; respective of the past as it is contemplative of the future. It is a sight to behold.
“Oppenheimer” is rated R for some sexuality, nudity and language.