Oppenheimer review: Nolan goes nuclear

Part thriller and part character study, Christopher Nolan’s biopic of the father of the atomic bomb is his most political movie yet.

Akhil Arora, a member of the Film Critics Guild and a Rotten Tomatoes-certified film critic

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer
Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer // Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

Unquestionably, Mahatma Gandhi was a patriot. He was hugely important to his nation and his policies helped save lives—in turn, changing the course of history and altering the world. (Though inevitably, as a by-product of his words and actions, lives were lost too. Yet, the scales tilt towards the greater good.) But the man was also despised by some of his own, which is why he was assassinated. Largely condemned for decades, the fringe condoning of that act has become mainstream in recent times, as India’s ruling Hindu nationalists have sought to sideline Gandhi. Oppenheimer—the new film by Christopher Nolan—is essentially about that. The duality of being celebrated because of your usefulness and being cast aside when you no longer serve the agenda of the day.

Of course, Nolan’s titular subject, J. Robert Oppenheimer—widely credited as the father of the atomic bomb—isn’t a 1:1 to Gandhi. But just like the father of India, he was hugely important to his nation, and ultimately, the world. His greatest work came at the cost of lives, but it likely helped save more. More importantly, it altered the face of war forever. It also altered him, Oppenheimer posits. In the wake of that devastating event, his policies put him in direct opposition to the military and political machinery. He was undoubtedly a patriot, and though he wasn’t killed—I’m sure some would’ve preferred that—his country turned on him, pushed him out of influence, and made an example out of him. In less than a decade, he went from American hero to being labelled a Soviet spy.

Oppenheimer has an unbelievable cast

Nolan—who wrote and directed Oppenheimer—presents this rise-and-fall character study in a characteristic breath-taking pace. And yet, somehow, it’s three hours long. Still, the film never threatens to drag, in part thanks to what is Nolan’s most impressive ability. (No, it’s not the practical reconstruction of the atomic bomb test that occupies a mere minute of that runtime.) He has convinced leading actors for bit-part roles. It’s not that Oppenheimer has one or two—it has half a dozen of them: Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Dane DeHaan, Alden Ehrenreich, and Gary Oldman among them. Malek talks in one scene, Affleck and Oldman appear in one room, and Blunt, despite being billed second, seemingly has less screen time than others lower down the order. To say that Oppenheimer has a packed star cast is a great understatement.

Matt Damon as Leslie Groves in Oppenheimer
Matt Damon as Leslie Groves in Oppenheimer // Photo: Universal Pictures

Though it has the trappings of a standard biopic—opening surprisingly with a rather conventional start, as it runs through the character’s early years, at times via a montage—it’s also very much a Nolan film. From the beginning, it operates primarily across three timelines: Oppenheimer’s (Cillian Murphy) journey to the making of the bomb in the ’30 and ‘40s, his security hearing in 1954, and Lewis Strauss’s (Robert Downey Jr.) Senate confirmation hearing in 1959. The first is framed through the second, with Oppenheimer essentially diving into his entire backstory. And there are diversions along the way that link the timelines and their characters, setting out the motivations, providing context, and drawing parallels to convey the depth and history of the events.

Triumph and tragedy are intrinsically linked

Downey Jr. anchors his own (black-and-white) movie for a majority of the first half, as Nolan lays the foundation for what will become Oppenheimer’s centrepiece in the second. Meanwhile, Murphy and Co.—including Damon, Josh Hartnett, Benny Safdie, Gustaf Skarsgård, Michael Angarano, Jack Quaid, and a bunch of others, who play a variety of scientists or military personnel—are thrust into a thriller with socio-political undertones, as they attempt to outpace the Nazis in making the weapon of mass destruction while dealing with technical challenges, the sway of Communist ideologies, lack of control over their creation, and the conundrum of lying to their allies.

But that’s only half the movie. After the bombs are dropped on Japan, the Strauss hearings which had been their own thing of sorts intersect with the Oppenheimer track. Downey Jr.’s presence, which had felt tangential in some ways—until then, it had served to raise the stature of Oppenheimer, whose importance was still developing in front of us—is suddenly essential to what unfolds for the remainder of the film. Nolan essentially notes that Oppenheimer’s triumph and tragedy are intrinsically linked. When his country needed him, his beliefs and affiliations were ignored. But the moment he developed guilt over his actions—parts of the film play out like a psychological nightmare—and began to oppose any further development of nuclear weapons, his outspokenness was challenged.

Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss in Oppenheimer
Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss in Oppenheimer // Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

Who was Oppenheimer?

Despite the sheer runtime, the multiple timelines, and the breadth of characters who interact with him—everyone from Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) to President Truman (Gary Oldman)—the film struggles at times to paint a clear picture of who Oppenheimer was and what he stood for. That is in part due to the character’s “ambiguous and paradoxical” nature, as Nolan admitted in an interview. As a Jewish American, his pursuit of the bomb came from a place of helping his people and not letting Nazi Germany get there first. In the film and reality, Oppenheimer regretted not being able to use it on the Nazis, as Hitler had already been defeated by conventional methods while it was still in development. Still, even though the rationale for making it had seemingly disappeared, Oppenheimer didn’t stop.

America’s military leaders justified its requirement by claiming Japan—the only remaining Axis power, against the entire world—would never surrender. Oppenheimer went along with it. It was only later he learned that the enemy was on its last legs already. Not only were they misled, but they also had little idea of what they were grappling with. Oppenheimer repeatedly notes the scientists’ fear of a chain reaction that could ignite the atmosphere—but no one on the team had any idea about the effects of radiation and the problems that’d cause across decades. The man who had set out to outrun the Nazis had his invention co-opted even before World War II ended. No wonder he vehemently opposed doing anything more, fearful of the inevitable arms race.

Christopher Nolan’s most political film yet

Oppenheimer is, in parts, what you expect from a biopic. The film opens with onscreen text that more or less summarises what Nolan is trying to say. And if that isn’t enough, he inserts on-the-nose dialogue about the title of the book it’s inspired by, the significance of Oppenheimer’s achievements, and his famous reading of the Bhagavad Gita line “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Nolan effectively balances the gravity of it all, couching the film in jabs and situational humour. (Damon is a big part of that.) He doesn’t forget the importance of lightness in a script, especially one that’s as introspective as this one, dealing with problems of this scale and magnitude.

Yet crucially, it is also his most political film yet. Much more so than Dunkirk, which was more in-the-moment action. It’s more grown-up than Interstellar, which cared more about wowing its audience than deepening its themes. And it doesn’t have the blockbuster appeal of Inception or The Dark Knight trilogy. Oppenheimer is far from your average Nolan fanboy film.

On the surface, it’s about a man who helped alter the shape of the world. But it’s also about our world today (naturally). A world where patriots are discarded, put in jails, and labelled “anti-nationals”. And those who solely work for their own profit brand themselves as saviours while spreading hate and division. Oppenheimer is a character study that purports itself as a thriller for the majority of its runtime, only to gradually usher you into an entirely different movie. One that studies the hidden apparatus. Where ambition, pettiness, and fear of the other fuse into a cocktail of vengeance. One that looks at how humans—no matter their stature or contribution—are torn down.

Your name may well be Oppenheimer or Gandhi. But when you’re repeatedly bombarded by seemingly meaningless neutrons, it’s impossible to contain that reaction.

Oppenheimer released on July 21 in cinemas worldwide.

Akhil Arora