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  • Writer's pictureMatt Conway

Oppenheimer: Review

Brash scientist Robert J. Oppenheimer is a master at his craft, treading to his own temperamental wavelength as he fantasizes about conceiving an innovation that will rewrite history. His obsession with greatness steers him toward The Manhattan Project, a top-secret United States creation designed to end World War II. Unbeknownst to Robert, the end product of his magnum opus unlocks a harrowing new future in the biopic "Oppenheimer."

For director Christopher Nolan, the architect behind equally grand and intelligent blockbusters like "The Dark Knight" and "Inception," "Oppenheimer" marks a welcomed change of pace. Nolan is a prolific showman - a lavish storyteller who unleashes awe-inspiring practical effects and imposing scale with every narrative he touches. Sometimes, though, Nolan's pursuit of grandeur can come at a detriment to his features' emotional and narrative impact. I'd argue that some previous projects of his, such as "The Dark Knight Rises" and "Dunkirk," lost themselves amidst the glow of their captivating spectacle.

With "Oppenheimer," Nolan diverts his bombastic tendencies toward a refreshingly introspective tale. His earth-shattering sound and opulent visuals are not devices for defining a majestic world for viewers to escape into. Instead, the director's epic production values insulate us into Oppenheimer's degrading mindset. A fusion of arrogance and aspiration erupts in his brain as each step in the bomb's construction inches him closer to a hallowed place in history books. However, once Oppenheimer understands the bomb's sobering potential, his dreams disintegrate into a haunting nightmare.

"Oppenheimer's" kinetic stylistic identity is a much-needed pallet cleanser compared to the stuffy drabness emanating from most biopics. Nolan ratchets tension with dynamic flair, capturing the weight and unrelenting dread building throughout the bomb's construction. Each filmmaking choice brilliantly extenuates the film's themes rather than becoming a garish gimmick desperate to get viewers' attention. Despite no traditional action throughout its 3-hour runtime, "Oppenheimer" impressively maintains these heightened tensions.

Nolan's film is also adept at reckoning with Oppenheimer's nuanced existence. Like a mythic figure, the character stretches past the boundaries of understanding to conquer science and human nature, only to discover that the destination is a hellscape brimming with death and destruction. Star Cillian Murphy delivers a career-best performance in these confines. He wears Oppenheimer's emotional confliction and neurotic brilliance, manifesting the historical figure's introspective reckoning through subtle yet powerful performance choices. Murphy's cold stare and pained expressions consistently generate moving responses without begging for the viewer's attention.

Additionally, a who's who of acclaimed actors skillfully bolsters the supporting cast. Matt Damon oozes gruff machismo energy as an overly pragmatic general. Josh Hartnett radiates the old-school movie star energy that once made him a revered name in the early 2000s. Even Robert Downey Jr. showcases his best work in decades as a deceitful legislator. The cast's deep roster features an endless array of outstanding performances; I could seriously spend all day naming them (just look at this movie's IMDB page).

I've seen some argue the film does a disservice to Japanese perspectives most impacted by the catastrophic nuclear bombs. That is a reasonable stance, and I agree that viewpoint would make for a great inclusion in most World War 2 stories. Here, Nolan's minimal integration of Japan reads as a deliberate choice. As the third act descends into a bureaucratic knife fight in the form of US Senate hearings, the filmmaker makes it abundantly clear that political brass fixated more on absolving responsibility from their hands rather than reflecting on the bomb's infamous aftermath. Nolan's piercing critiques skewer the country's jingoistic propaganda and worldly ignorance that defined this era, which ultimately bleeds into the damaging ramifications of the Red Scare McCarthyism synonymous with the era's politics. The writer/director's meaningful reflections help form his most fleshed-out thematic work to date.

Equally captivating and cathartic, "Oppenheimer" ignites with empathetic impact onscreen. I credit Nolan for boldly stretching his wings here. The director operates outside his comfort zone in what I consider to be one of his most accomplished features.


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