Films about Great Men are usually acts of hagiography, and in many ways, Oppenheimer is no different. Christopher Nolan’s biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb”, is invested in Oppenheimer as a once-in-a-generation genius, a Great Man who literally moved the earth, but Nolan is also interested in all of Oppenheimer’s failures and foibles. And I do mean ALL of them, at a monster 180 minutes, Oppenheimer wades through the tides of Oppenheimer’s life if not at a leisurely pace, then certainly at a thorough one. We learn that “Oppy” is brilliant at theoretical physics but bad at math and a liability in the lab, he’s a womanizer, a bad dad and worse husband, and a big enough believer in his own importance to underestimate his own political liabilities.
Cillian Murphy plays Oppenheimer with a bright-eyed intensity and steely fortitude in turns, as he portrays the man from his student days in Europe to his post-war downfall. Nolan divides his film into three sections, one centered on a post-war hearing to renew, or not, Oppenheimer’s government security clearance; another focused on his days heading the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico; and the final section, told in black and white, from the perspective of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.) during his own senate confirmation hearing to join Eisenhower’s cabinet.
Oppenheimer is a big film, not just in minutes but in scope of story and scale of ambition. It covers decades and monumental moments in history, but also makes room for more personal moments, such as Oppenheimer’s disastrous affair with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), a gifted but troubled psychiatrist and Communist activist. Nolan, working from Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s epic biography, American Prometheus, is interested in the contrast of Oppenheimer the Great Man and Oppenheimer the Lousy Asshole, though there is enough sympathy for Oppenheimer the Guy Who Changed His Mind Later that even Oppenheimer’s worst traits are a little rose-colored.
Which parts of Oppenheimer appeal the most is entirely personal. I responded most to the later portion of the film focused on Lewis Strauss’s confirmation hearing. Oppenheimer isn’t even in this portion of the film, he only appears in black and white flashbacks as Strauss recalls their fraught history to a young senate aide (Alden Ehrenreich, absolutely stealing the show). Strauss personally recruited Oppenheimer to Princeton University, but after seeing Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) in conversation, and then being ignored by Einstein, he takes a strong dislike to Oppenheimer, believing the other man turned Einstein against him.
Nolan, one of the most exacting filmmakers working today, recreates Los Alamos in painstaking detail (with production design by Ruth De Jong and set decoration by Claire Kaufman, Olivia Peebles, and Adam Willis), and re-stages the Trinity Test—minus the nuclear material—to its fullest effect. It is terrible, it is monstrous, it is awesome in the Biblical sense of the word—it is not more horrifying than even one single image of the real devastation visited upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Manhattan Project portion of the film offers a lot of interesting stuff, from the recreated Trinity Test to Oppenheimer’s hideous home life—set to a soundtrack of screaming babies and his wife’s functional alcoholism—to Matt Damon’s reliably charming performance as the Army general tasked with keeping all these half-Commie scientists in line during the war. There is also a lot of time devoted to Oppenheimer sowing the seeds of his own destruction, as he dabbles in left-wing politics—mostly harmless before the war, but utterly devastating during the Red Scare that comes after. As smart as he is, Oppenheimer truly cannot read the room, whether it’s attending socialist rallies at the wrong moment or inadvertently betraying a friend as a possible spy.
But this portion of the film is also the most rote biopic stuff in Oppenheimer. It’s very well crafted and extremely well-acted, and it’s not exactly boring, it’s just that it doesn’t top a single line delivered during the “senate hearing” portion of the film. Oppenheimer’s security clearance hearing at least has a truly great scene with Emily Blunt as Kitty, Oppenheimer’s long-suffering wife, a talented scientist in her own right relegated to the kitchen by The Times. That scene crackles with Kitty’s repressed fury—at her husband, at the men undermining him, at the world undermining her—and comes closest to the stellar line from the senate hearing.
That line, though, it just overshadows everything, even the big bomb drop. “Did you ever stop to think,” the disillusioned aide says to Strauss, “that they didn’t talk about you at all? That they had more important things to talk about?” A lesser actor than Alden Ehrenreich would make a meal out of that line, but he delivers it with devastating casualness, as if it’s so obvious a thought it isn’t even worth the breath it takes to utter it. In truth, no one knows what Oppenheimer and Einstein talked about that day at Princeton, but Lewis Strauss built his reality around the idea that it was him. How silly of him! How asinine!
At its best, Oppenheimer is not a Great Man biopic, it’s not a technical marvel of filmmaking, it’s not a cracking thriller about the race to end World War II, and it’s definitely not a meditation on the consequences of using nuclear weapons. At its best, Oppenheimer is a story about small, petty men changing the world for the worse because they cannot fathom that THEY are not the center of it. It’s a cautionary tale less about nuclear power and more about the deleterious effect of self-important men on those around them. Oppenheimer dismisses Einstein as the best mind of his generation, past his prime and no longer on the cutting edge, but Einstein is, in fact, old enough to know that it’s not about him, a lesson literally no other man in this film learns until it’s too late.
Oppenheimer is good enough, and long enough, that everyone will have a different favorite part, though I suspect what will linger longest is not the history lesson, or the cinematic gee-whizzery, but the look on Strauss’s face when someone points out that maybe he wasn’t the main character all along. Sometimes, a person comes along and can change the world as J. Robert Oppenheimer did, ushering in the nuclear age. But always there are those men like Lewis Strauss, manipulating people and events to satisfy their vindicative agendas made up of imagined slights. We only have to cope with a transformative genius like Oppenheimer occasionally—and sometimes they even improve the world, with art and music and beauty—but we always have to navigate the detritus of the aggrieved egos of men like Strauss. Oppenheimer is about genius, about a man, about a bomb, but it’s also about the waste laid to the world by weak men.
This review was published during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes of 2023. The work being reviewed would not exist without the labor of writers and actors. Oppenheimer is exclusively in theaters from July 21, 2023.
Attached - Matt Damon arriving at JFK with his family after wrapping Oppenheimer promotion due to the strike.