Thursday, July 20, 2023


 by Rob DiCristino


In the simplest terms, nuclear fission occurs when atomic materials collide at very high speeds. This collision splits those materials apart, producing a great deal of energy. In a nuclear power plant, that energy is expended slowly and harnessed to produce electricity. In a bomb — such as the one developed by J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Manhattan Project during World War II — it is expended quickly, at higher temperatures, thus causing more collisions. More reactions. Over and over. For a time, some physicists feared that these chain reactions would be so intense that they would never end; exploded atoms would react with those in the atmosphere, eating away at the air and water around us and eventually making the planet uninhabitable. “Near zero,” Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) assures his military handler (Matt Damon as Gen. Leslie Groves) when asked about this probability. “Zero would be nice,” Groves responds. But Oppenheimer can’t assure him of that. Theory can only take you so far. One way or another, you have to put it to the test.
Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s biography of perhaps the twentieth century’s most consequential figure, is the story of these theories, tests, and reactions. It’s the story of atoms accelerating to high speeds and colliding with great force and purpose. Some of these atoms combined and created new connections, like that between Oppenheimer and his troubled communist mistress, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). Other reactions were violent and destructive; the peace-leaning Oppenheimer clashed with Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), the prominent politician and head of the Atomic Energy Commission who spurned his wishes for international cooperation in favor of a jingoistic arms race. Oppenheimer’s exuberant brilliance provoked reaction after reaction — colleagues Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett) and Isidor Rabi (David Krumholtz) followed his lead, while mentors like Neils Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) warned that unfettered ambition would push him beyond his ability.

That’s to say nothing of the cacophony inside of Oppenheimer himself, the contradictory impulses that threatened his marriage (to Emily Blunt’s Kitty), made him the target of intelligence officers like Boris Pash (Casey Affleck) and David Hill (Rami Malek), and subjected him to inquiries by a government panel (led by Tony Goldwyn’s Gordon Gray) empowered to investigate his allegiances. Nolan’s film — based on the bestseller American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin — is less an action-packed tale of nuclear explosivity than it is a chronicle of Oppenheimer’s efforts to temper and align these impulses, to gamble his humanity against world-changing scientific breakthroughs. Nolan weaves more than forty years of plot threads together with his signature elliptical flair and uses new IMAX black and white photography to blur subjective lines between feuding parties. The result is a symphony of close-ups and shallow focus, a claustrophobic thriller more akin to his own Memento than a traditional historical epic.
In fact, audiences hoping for the sprawling action set pieces that made Inception and The Dark Knight such iconic spectacles should temper their expectations, as Oppenheimer’s most explosive moments are internal, tied to nuclear catastrophe in grand metaphor rather than literal depiction (the film isn’t called The Manhattan Project, after all). Instead, Nolan builds to one key event: a breathtaking Trinity test sequence highlighted by some of the finest work composer Ludwig G√∂ransson has offered so far. And while it’s certainly a bravura exercise in anticipation — my IMAX theater rattled so hard I feared it might come apart at the seams — the uneasy catharsis that follows is far more terrifying. We want to celebrate with the soldiers and scientists. We want to share their joy of achievement, but something is wrong. Even if we can’t admit it, something about i just isn’t right. It’s that uneasiness that slowly pervades over the balance of Oppenheimer’s runtime, an ebbing sludge of doubt and disquiet that remains long after the bombs have fallen.
Despite this more cerebral and abstract approach — not to mention its three-hour runtime — Oppenheimer is the clearest path to Oscar glory of Christopher Nolan’s career: The story of an American hero unjustly maligned by his contemporaries and ultimately vindicated by history? A star-making turn from an established character actor finally breaking through to A-list status? A slick and charming supporting performance from Robert Downey Jr., back in prestige territory after a decade in the green screen jungle? Political intrigue? Sexual impropriety? The awards campaign practically writes itself, and it will be difficult to argue against any accolades Oppenheimer collects. I can only hope that any forthcoming assent from his peers will encourage the notoriously icy and asexual filmmaker — who notably offers a welcome bit of skin this time around — to delve even further inward, foregoing further urges to produce “thinking man’s sci-fi blockbusters” and focus more acutely on nuance and pathos. As Oppenheimer proves, they can be just as arresting as even the most explosive atomic warheads.

Oppenheimer hits theaters on Friday, July 21st.


  1. For better or worse, i'm a big fan of Christopher Nolan. And i have my ticket for the 70mm Imax presentation next monday. Can't wait.

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  3. Thanks Rob...always LOVE your reviews and this movie is probably the one im most excited for coming out this year..cant wait!!!

    PS: I look forward to when it comes out on 4K UHD so i can do a double feature with The Manhattan Project (1986) which is a forgotten 80s nerd fav where a high school kid builds a working atomic bomb.

  4. Great review, as always! I can't wait to watch this.

    1. I actually will wait a bit. I'll go see it at the earliest showing on Wednesday. I love movies, but I hate people haha.

  5. Great movie, but my movie was shit. Between the girl next to me who switched from playing with her hair, to taking out her phone (brightness very low, thank god) and the screen suffering from black crush, it was not the awesome night i was hoping for. but at 3h runtime, i don't think i'll watch it again until the blu-ray comes out