Director Christopher Nolan’s biopic on Robert J Oppenheimer, credited as the ‘father of the atom bomb’, is an explosive look into the troubled genius’ mind. It’s a cinematic incendiary of our times powered by some brilliant acting and a compelling storyline.
The movie, spearheaded by an on-point Cillian Murphy in the titular role, hits you like a sledgehammer as it raises questions on the moral/ethical dilemma faced by the remarkable theoretical physicist after he was tasked with developing nuclear weapons to alter the course of World War II.
Robert J Oppenheimer, a bundle of complex contradictions, altered the geopolitical landscape and changed the course of World War II after he built nuclear weapons at Americans' disposal, and Nolan delves deep into his sharp-yet-muddled psyche with the precision of a surgical knife. And the film works wonderfully because of the collective acting prowess of the star-studded ensemble. Whether it’s Robert Downey Jr playing Lewis Strauss, the former chair of the US Atomic Energy Commission, with great impact or Emily Blunt playing Oppenheimer’s wife dealing with alcoholism and her husband’s regular transgressions, this film is a masterclass in subtle acting. Every actor pulls their heft with aplomb.
And the good news: It’s one of the few Nolan films that doesn’t leave the viewers scratching their heads on what the plot or the ending was about. (Full disclosure: Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ and ‘Inception’ blew right over my head)
The movie, which opens with Oppenheimer’s murky college episode at Cambridge University in which he almost poisons his professor by injecting potassium cyanide into a green apple and later battling suspicions of being a Soviet spy, gives us a dense understanding of this brilliantly fractured person.
And fortunately, it’s not treated like a dense physics course that can be overwhelming and difficult to understand. This film is one of Nolan’s best and searingly simple-yet-complicated works. The dichotomy between a scientific genius’ love for discovery and his fears on how his inventions will be used to destroy innocent lives has been wonderfully illustrated. Every character in this film isn’t painted with broad black and white strokes, they revel in the grey.
Murphy’s conflicts and struggles are languidly brought out in the 180-minute epic spectacle. The superhero, although broken, is clearly this actor in this epic spectacle. The film oscillates between a riveting crime procedural – where Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project – is witch-hunted in the US in the early 1950s and an extraordinary story of the rise and fall of a celebrated scientist.
While the heavy-lifting is done by a rich ensemble of male actors (here’s looking at you Robert Downey Jr, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck and Rami Malek), the women in this biopic are equally potent. Blunt as Murphy’s wife, a high-functioning alcoholic overwhelmed by her own infant – and Florence Pugh – who plays Oppenheimer’s volatile girlfriend-turned-mistress – make a significant impact. Watch out for the confrontation scenes between the husband and wife and husband and mistress that are heaving with pathos. This well-made feature doesn’t pass judgment on any of its characters and doesn’t pass that burden to its viewers either.
Visually, the film is arresting and reaches a crescendo when Murphy and his team of sharp scientists oversee the detonation of the first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert. The momentous and grim event was the perfect build-up and made sure that ‘Oppenheimer’ closed with a bang.