Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, “Oppenheimer” is a biopic that explores the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, portrayed by Cillian Murphy. The two work hand in hand, with Nolan creating a realistic cinematic odyssey of the invention that came out of the Manhattan Project, while Murphy’s haunted expression — sensitized by his bright blue watery eyes — embodies the once passionate and later demoralized creator of the atomic bomb used on Japan in 1945 during World War II. From its astounding portrayal of historic events to the dedicated cast, “Oppenheimer” is not a movie but an experience from beginning to end.
Within seconds of the opening scene, Nolan foreshadows the intensity of the film with audio that sends vibrations throughout the theater, shaking viewers' seats. Despite its three-hour duration, the film’s astonishingly fast-paced narrative makes the experience engaging throughout. With time jumps, black and white shots and a nonlinear plot, “Oppenheimer'' quickly throws its viewers into the mix of events. The theme of change is a vital tool for Nolan, keeping the film fresh while adding to the concept that the Manhattan Project was a vital race between nations to build the first atomic bomb.
As explosive as the film’s score is, it frustratedly dilutes some of the fast-paced dialogue. Poor sound mixing has been a consistent issue faced by Nolan, tracing back to his second film “Memento.” Nolan has gone on record with The Hollywood Reporter to say that his choice of thunderous scores is completely intentional.
"Many of the filmmakers I've admired over the years have used sound in bold and adventurous ways,” Nolan said. “I don't agree with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue. Clarity of story, clarity of emotions — I try to achieve that in a very layered way using all the different things at my disposal — picture and sound."
From talks of radioactive isotopes, countless names of scientists and the at times overbearing background sound, salient plot details are hard to keep track of. While “Oppenheimer” is nowhere near the conceptual complexity of time travel in “Interstellar,” nor the manipulation of dreams in “Inception,” viewers should be advised to pay close attention throughout the biopic still.
While the sound slightly muddles the film’s clarity of expression, it is simultaneously the most captivating component. The score displays the dichotomy of moral questions in the Manhattan Project from moments of soothing orchestra harmony that reflect Oppenheimer's elegance in pursuit of a new scientific discovery, to screeching violins in times of urgency and trauma. While the score alone is enough to pierce through the screen, it is merely a rehearsal for the climax of the film — The Trinity Test — which was the first-ever detonation of a nuclear explosion.
Just as the timer ticks to zero for The Trinity Test, a deafening silence roams, leaving only the sound of deep breathing to fill the air. The silence astutely displays the dissonance between the speed of sound and light, emphasizing the unscalable size of the explosion and serving as a brilliant tactic of excitement and horror when the explosion is finally heard. As the screen is slowly filled with red, yellow and fiery smoke, it is an astounding experience that is perfectly fitted for IMAX.
While much excitement for the film was built around the spectacle of a nuclear explosion, Nolan thankfully dives into much greater depth of the physicist in the less explosive second half of the film. One emotional yet horrific scene dives into the mind of Oppenheimer where he envisions the incinerated victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Murphy’s performance during the scene wonderfully displays the evolution of Oppenheimer and the subsequent trauma faced as a result of his own invention.
Along with Murphy comes a brilliant performance by Robert Downey Jr. who plays Lewis Strauss — chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission — and brings forth the security hearing on Oppenheimer due to his previous ties to the communist party. Combined with the mental stress of the bombings, it is at this point where Oppenheimer is completely defeated, where even his wife —played by Emily Blunt — is begging for him to fight back.
While what results from the security hearing may seem minimal, Nolan’s underlying messages shine throughout this moment. Nolan brings to light the U.S. government’s exploitation of scientists after WWII, displaying their ignorance towards Oppenhiemer’s request of enforcing international regulation on nuclear weapons and deeming him as a threat to U.S. security once no longer needed for the war. “Oppenheimer” goes beyond the Trinity Test, educating modern audiences on this untold dramatic story of betrayal and the double-edged significance of Oppenheimer’s contribution to society.
From practical effects to fluid storytelling and skilled supporting actors, “Oppenheimer” certainly met and exceeded expectations. Dramatic as it is educational, Nolan provides an authentic portrayal of The Manhattan Project and goes above and beyond by displaying the scrutiny Oppenheimer faced from the U.S. government after WWII. From the extremely dense plot to the colorful, loud and fast effects, “Oppenheimer” does great service to the historical figure and the significance of his world-altering invention.