Now that the drum-beating has peaked, we can see for ourselves what Christopher Nolan has wrought in Oppenheimer, as unlikely a major-studio summer movie as ever was. It’s all dressed up in IMAX and 70mm but what we get is a fairly traditional biopic, no better or worse than many others of recent and distant memory. We even get to see the cast in old-age makeup, but we don’t ever learn what made the man tick. I haven’t read Nolan’s source material, Martin J. Sherwin and Kai Bird’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, so I can’t assess its value as opposed to the film.
Being a Nolan screenplay, the story is told in nonlinear fashion. Cillian Murphy, with his open, seemingly guileless expression, is completely convincing as the scientist known as the father of the atomic bomb who, after building it, counseled against its use and made many enemies in the process. But no one can get inside the head of a genius—be it a painter or a composer or a brilliant scientist, so we don’t leave the theater with a feeling of knowing what Oppy was all about, except on the surface. (There is even a glimpse of Albert Einstein, played by that wonderful actor Tom Conti.)
We see Oppenheimer at various stages of his life, in Europe and in the States, especially at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the bomb was created. We meet his on-again, off-again mistress (Florence Pugh) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who finds her husband’s passivity infuriating when he is publicly humiliated by our government in the years following World War II.
Other supporting roles are filled by a top-notch ensemble including Matt Damon, Alden Ehrenreich, Jason Clarke, Josh Hartnett, and Kenneth Branagh, to name just a few. I couldn’t figure out who was playing President Harry S. Truman and felt foolish when I read the closing credits. You can look it up or be as surprised as I was.
Does all of this warrant three bladder-challenging hours of running time? The answer, not surprisingly, is no. The final half-hour is dominated by Robert Downey Jr.’s character, Lewis Strauss, former head of the Atomic Energy Commission who seizes the opportunity to smear Oppenheimer’s reputation in the 1950s. While true, focusing on Strauss’s fury shifts the balance of the film away from its protagonist and becomes an unwelcome distraction.
I’m not sure why IMAX was the filmmaker’s choice for this subject, aside from the fact that he likes the supersized format. Its vaunted sound system makes the most of the bomb test scenes, especially the climactic burst in New Mexico, but the majority of the picture is told in closeups and medium shots. Nolan has used his clout to shoot and edit on motion picture film and for this he earns my utmost respect and admiration.
But for all we learn about the creation and execution of the atomic bomb and its aftermath, the story could and should be told in a more digestible form. Instead, we have an overlong narrative that isn’t revelatory or surprising.
(For another fascinating look at what went on at Los Alamos in the 1940s, check out the cable TV series Manhattan, which debuted in 2014 and never amassed the audience it deserved. You can stream it on Amazon Prime and other channels.)