“Oppenheimer,” acclaimed director Christopher Nolan’s newest film, exploded its way into theaters on July 21, 2023.
“Oppenheimer” is about the life of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, most known for his work on the Manhattan Project during World War II which led to the creation of the atomic bomb. The film came out on the same day as Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” causing the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon on social media, which encouraged people to see both films.
“Oppenheimer” was directed by Nolan, known for also directing films such as “The Dark Knight” and “Inception”. This marks Nolan’s first biopic and second film set during World War II after “Dunkirk”. The film stars Cillian Murphy, a frequent Nolan collaborator, as the eponymous J. Robert Oppenheimer. Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon and Florence Pugh also feature prominently in the film. The film is based on the book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” a biography of Oppenheimer.
While “Oppenheimer” may be a bit of an intimidating film with its three-hour-long runtime and distinction as a historical drama, it manages to break down the barriers of the biopic genre and become a masterful work of art. Even great biopics like “The Aviator” and “Chaplin” fall victim to the fact these films are essentially just the important events of one person’s life being told chronologically.
“Oppenheimer” differentiates itself by telling the story of Oppenheimer out of order, with three separate timelines progressing intermittently. While this sounds complicated, the audience is able to follow along thanks to the excellent hair and makeup that make the actors feel like they are different ages and the black and white used for the third timeline. The editing of having real-life events told out of order keeps the audience engaged as they must constantly be paying attention and keeping track of which timeline they are in. This leads to an enjoyable experience since the three narratives are perfectly put together at the end of the film.
Beyond the editing and story itself, the performances of the film are phenomenal. Murphy is both the lead and standout performance of the film, as he truly transforms into Oppenheimer, both physically and mentally. His sunken cheeks and piercing blue eyes capture the torment inside of Oppenheimer as he realizes what his creation has been used for. Likewise, Downey Jr. is excellent in his first film role since 2019’s “Doolittle”. Downey Jr. portrays Lewis Strauss, a real-life politician whose Presidential Cabinet hearing is shown on the big screen, parallel to the life of Oppenheimer.
Another aspect of “Oppenheimer” that works well is the use of practical effects in the film. Nolan even stated that there are no computer-generated visual effects in the film, a refreshing change of pace from the current onset of CGI-laden superhero films. Even the Trinity nuclear bomb test was shot completely with practical effects, leading to a sensational viewing experience that feels more real than most films.
“Oppenheimer” is a film that must be seen on the big screen and for better or worse, probably requires multiple viewings to understand. “Oppenheimer” tackles complex themes such as how much control scientists have over their inventions and the ethics of nuclear weapons during war. Consequently, it may take viewers two or more screenings of the film to fully grasp everything that the film is saying about Oppenheimer and his impact on the world to this day.
One flaw of the film is that the sound mixing of the audio can be confusing at times. There are several points during the film when it is difficult to tell what characters are saying because the background noise and music is too loud. While this is probably intentional on Nolan’s part to give the film a documentary feel of real people talking, it leads to a frustrating viewing experience at certain points because it feels like the audience may be missing crucial lines of dialogue. Thankfully, this can be remediated by watching the film with subtitles, but it is unfortunate that this is necessary to understand all of the dialogue.
On the whole, “Oppenheimer” is one of the best films to come out in recent memory and will most likely go down as one of Nolan’s best films, potentially landing him an Academy Award. From the brilliant editing to the excellent performances and visually stunning practical effects, “Oppenheimer” is a masterpiece of American cinema that pushes beyond the biopic genre.
Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars