In 1943, with Hitler’s Nazi Germany rumored to be close to creating an atomic weapon, the United States was racing to catch up.  In order to secure the best scientists, the decision was made to build a town in Los Alamos where their families could move for the duration and where testing could be done.  General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) chose a theoretical physicist with some questionable communist ties to direct the operation.  His name was Robert J.“Oppenheimer.”

Laura's Review: A-

Writer/director Christopher Nolan’s ("Dunkirk," "Tenet") three hour magnum opus is one of the most unusually structured biopics in recent memory, Oppenheimer’s point of view presented in color, memory fragments showering us with random bits of information across multiple time lines which gradually form a morally complex portrait, while in black and white we get the recollections of U.S. Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), the man who pursued Oppenheimer to head Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study before a personal vendetta drove him to bring the man down by engineering a hearing which would revoke his security clearance. 

If you know absolutely nothing about Oppenheimer or the Manhattan Project, Nolan’s adaptation of Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s 'American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer’ may leave your head spinning (a very good 2014-2015 TNT series called ‘Manhattan’ isn’t a bad place to start) – just outlining the recognizable stars in the cast alone could fill an entire review.  But keeping track of every single character isn’t necessary to grasp Nolan’s vision of a man inspired by Quantum mechanics and a burning desire to outrace the Nazis persecuting his fellow Jews, yet who forged ahead with atomic bomb development after Hitler’s death, even participating in choosing Japanese targets, then reversed his stance on moral grounds after the war (something else which rankled Strauss, not to mention Harry S. Truman (Gary Oldman)).

“Oppenheimer” is a movie of a million moving pieces, with Nolan revisiting seminal moments, turning them around to inspect them from every angle.  The physicist trailed by whispers of communism because of his support of Spanish loyalists (who were funded via the Communist Party) and his passionate affair with known communist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), is first seen stating his Bhagavad Gita mantra, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,’ when she demands he translate something from Sanskrit while she straddles him, both naked.  And *that* image will be repeated when during his security hearing, Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), conjures it as he testifies about the relationship.  Most famously he uttered the words during the Trinity test, one rumored to have been named in reference to Jean, when the atomic bomb went off, he watching from a wooden box in the desert, his eyes shielded by goggles.  A chance meeting between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) grows in Strauss’s memory as a plot against him, only to be revealed as cautionary words to the ‘father of the atomic bomb.’  And the Cambridge head tutor Patrick Blackett (James D'Arcy), whom a young Oppenheimer tried to poison with an apple, returns years later to denounce him in an opinion piece.

The density of politics, science, friendships and betrayals are treated like their own chain reaction, like the one we learn Los Alamos scientist Edward Teller (Benny Safdie) believed might never stop, igniting earth’s atmosphere and destroying the world.  This revelation leads to one of many pointed exchanges between Oppenheimer and Groves.  Murphy, with his large blue eyes, intense cheekbones and skeletal frame, embodies Oppenheimer’s contradictions, his demeanor alternating between restrained amusement of those around him and anxiety-stricken introspection.  Damon parades with military bark yet interacts with the (mostly) liberal scientists with something approaching gruff affection.  He is this movie’s equivalent of comic relief.  It is also a great pleasure to see Robert Downey Jr. released from that iron suit, giving a complex performance as a man with great ambition but deep insecurities.  Josh Hartnett is the easy going Berkeley scientist Ernest Lawrence who recreates the German’s atom splitting breakthrough and is continually frustrated by the liberal politics he believes stand in Oppenheimer’s way.  You’ll see Oscar winner Rami Malek flash by for a moment, only to reappear later to testify against Strauss during his senate cabinet hearing.  Other notable contributing players include Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr, Jason Clarke (whose Roger Robb gets a formidable foe in Emily Blunt’s Kitty during that kangaroo court hearing), Dane DeHaan, Alden Ehrenreich and Casey Affleck.  Olivia Thirlby is Los Alamos scientist Lili Hornig, who led an internal movement to stop the actual use of the bomb.  And while Nolan chose not to depict the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he does depict Oppenheimer imagining its effect on a woman in the crowd he addresses after the first has been dropped, our skin crawling as they cheer their success.

The film has been given a high contrast look by director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema, who partially shot the film with IMAX cameras.  Editor Jennifer Lame doesn’t so much connect the dots as leave them in a scattered, yet discernible pattern.  Production designer Ruth De Jong recreated Los Alamos close to its original setting, determined to get the mountainous horizon right.  Ludwig Göransson’s score is full of wonder and grandeur and portent, tying everything together.  Nolan, who has frequently been criticized for his inaudible sound mixes, here gives us clarity with dashes of surrealism, the Trinity Test accompanied only by Oppenheimer’s breathing, booming waves rolling over us in the moments after.

Even at three hours, “Oppenheimer” cannot encompass all the aspects of this man’s life, some, like his marriage and children, given short shrift.   But Nolan has given us a monumental piece of work about a complex historical character and done it with such dazzling style it evokes his very essence.

Universal opens "Oppenheimer" in theaters on 7/21/23.