It’s fitting that Christopher Nolan uses the opening minutes of Oppenheimer to evoke the myth of Prometheus, the legendary titan who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humanity, only to suffer terrible consequences. Nolan’s film is, after all, adapted from Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s Pulitzer-winning biography American Prometheus. But there’s more to the allusion than a nod in the direction of the source material. For the filmmaker himself, the comparison to Prometheus is a warning of what we’re about to see, the announcement of a uniquely American tragedy that’s rooted in reality yet also mythic in scope and ambition. In other words, it’s Nolan calling his shot, swinging for the fences in ways that even he never has before. What follows is perhaps his most self-assured and passionate cinematic effort so far, a film so thunderous and heavy that it just might knock you through the back wall of the theater.
As he has so often throughout his career, Nolan takes a nonlinear approach to the story, here laying out the life and work of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the soft-spoken, intensely brilliant father of the atomic bomb. The film bounces with precision and grace between crucial moments in Oppenheimer’s life, from the day he met his eventual wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) to his arrival at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton to, of course, the launch of the Manhattan Project that would give birth to the world’s first nuclear weapon. Along the way, we meet many figures that buoy and challenge him, from a young woman named Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) to a Washington D.C. maneuverer named Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), the latter hewing closer to Oppenheimer’s personal journey than perhaps even he realizes.
The purpose of all the weaving, between Oppenheimer’s student days and the security hearings that challenged his reputation in the 1950s, is not just to allow Nolan opportunities to play with certain symmetries in the physicist’s life, though he certainly makes time for those. Instead, there’s a kind of scientific detail to the way the film chooses to express these moments in a certain order, a sense that getting the combination right will incite a certain chain reaction in the audience. For Oppenheimer, who sees the makeup of the world in ways that no one else does, a chance encounter in the 1920s could change the world in the 1940s, then doom the same world in the 1960s. With that feeling ever-present in the beautifully rendered script—which features several key moments lifted almost verbatim from Bird and Sherwin’s book—all that time-hopping never feels like a gimmick.
But Nolan doesn’t hold this all together alone. He has plenty of help from a team of collaborators bringing their best, from the gorgeous cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema—who captures everything from New Mexico snow to black-and-white Senate hearings with searing power—to the blistering, relentless score of Ludwig Göransson that makes you feel every beat. Then, of course, there’s the cast, led by a driven, vulnerable, remarkably controlled performance from Murphy in the title role. His Oppenheimer is a constantly simmering cauldron not just of brilliance, but of indecision coupled with the idea that for all the talk of his heroism and his genius, he might not actually be a good person. At one point, while musing about his place in the world, he mentions that brilliance allows him to “get away with” many of his own shortcomings. It’s one of the keys to unlocking the film, and Murphy keeps that tone humming throughout. Alongside him, Downey Jr. turns in some of his best work in years, Pugh and Blunt are wonderful presences, and Matt Damon turns in scene-stealing work as Manhattan Project military lead, General Leslie Groves.
If you’re going to see Oppenheimer, though, it’s not just because it’s a movie full of stars. Odds are you’re turning up at the theater to see how Christopher Nolan films one of the most famous explosions in the history of humankind, and there’s no doubt the director is very aware of the anticipation built around that moment in the film. Thanks to Göransson’s score and masterful editing by Jennifer Lame, the Trinity Test in the New Mexico desert arrives slowly, piece by piece, allowing the weight of the moment to settle over the actors and the audience like a shroud. Then, in an instant, it’s all ripped away in one of the most dazzling, sobering, instantly iconic sequences you’re likely to see at the movies this year.
J. Robert Oppenheimer was a mass of contradictions and complications. He was undeniably brilliant, yet he could be distant and selfish, often by his own admission. He was able to command a room of students or colleagues, yet crumble in the face of personal crises. He was, in the end, one of the 20th century’s most recognizable creators and one of its most recognizable destroyers. Nolan could have framed his film around any one of these contradictions and found something compelling and sustaining to carry the narrative for three hours. Instead, he approaches and addresses them all, giving us the good and the bad of Oppenheimer in such dynamic ways that you will root for the man in one scene, then wonder in the very next if you backed the wrong horse. It’s a remarkable exercise in narrative balance, and it’s made all the more impressive by the sheer mythic quality of the story of a man who took command of primal, incomprehensibly destructive forces, then spent the rest of his life collapsing under the weight of what he’d unleashed.
For all this and more, Oppenheimer deserves the title of masterpiece. It’s Christopher Nolan’s best film so far, a step up to a new level for one of our finest filmmakers, and a movie that burns itself into your brain.
Oppenheimer opens in theaters July 21