Robert Downey, Jr. is in his post-Marvel reinvention phase, and if we ignore Dolittle, which we should, then his most significant post-Avengers project is Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s upcoming movie about Robert Oppenheimer, one of the inventors of the atomic bomb. Cillian Murphy is already on board to play Oppenheimer, and Emily Blunt is playing his wife, Katherine. RDJ and Matt Damon just joined up, playing Lewis Strauss and Lt. General Leslie Groves, respectively. Groves was the director of the Manhattan Project, and Strauss was the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission who clashed with Oppenheimer, questioning his loyalty and ultimately had him stripped of his security clearance after lengthy hearings about Oppenheimer’s suitability to lead American nuclear development. Strauss’s agenda was partly political—he was a conservative, Oppenheimer a liberal—but also personal, as Strauss and Oppenheimer competed for appointments and opportunities. Strauss is basically the villain of the piece. Following Chris Evans’ post-Marvel heel turn in Knives Out, it’s RDJ’s turn to go rogue.
The project is based on Kai Bird’s book, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Oppenheimer is being touted as a spiritual sequel to Dunkirk. I guess this means that Nolan has hit his WWII dad phase. Oppenheimer is certainly an interesting subject, but I’m a little worried that Universal is describing this movie as an “epic thriller” about the “enigmatic man who must risk destroying the world in order to save it.” Did Oppenheimer even see his work that way? This is the man who saw the first detonation of an atomic bomb and responded by quoting the Bhagavad-Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I don’t know that “pulse-pounding thriller about the events that led to one of the greatest losses of human life in history” is the right tone. Just seems like a weird way to describe a movie about the guy who was ambivalent, at best, about his role in nuclear weapons technology.
The reason Universal is bragging up Oppenheimer is because Christopher Nolan bailed on Warner Brothers, his long-time home, after their decision to release all their 2021 movies simultaneously on HBO Max. Nolan is one of the staunchest defenders of the theatrical experience, as we saw last year when he had Warners shove Tenet out into a pandemic-addled market. Despite doing as he wished then, there was no winning Nolan back after their HBO Max move. So, Universal stepped in, and now Nolan has a new filmmaking home, where they are using interesting words to describe his new movie about a fairly somber topic.