Written by Victor DeBonis
It wasn’t until the midway point that I mentally paused to reflect on my journey in film and Christopher Nolan’s part in it and what this film says about his craft and his place amidst other filmmakers. I was first introduced to the great talent when I went with my best friends from junior high going into high school to see “Batman Begins” in theaters during opening weekend. Around that time, a part of me still admired Batman deep down, but this movie was the first to fully explore Bruce’s journey to taking up the suit and the extent to which his tragedy affected him and everything he did from that point forward.
The experience revived my respect and admiration for the character, and it was also the first time in which, even before my love for movies truly started to take form, I believed I was watching work from a blockbuster filmmaker who understood how to thrill and entertain his crowd but also created more emotional weight and maturity than other big-studio directors from around that time did.
My respect for Nolan naturally increased when I saw “The Dark Knight” once, then twice, then, multiple times on physical release. The action, the ideas, the mature tone, and the performances were taken to another level beyond overall steady standards, and the director’s vision led to something gripping, unsettling, and challenging in the best ways.
“The Dark Knight” gradually gained a reputation as one of the gold-standard sequels in a franchise as well as a game-changing entry in the comic book genre.
And, then, a few months before I first headed off to college, I was already looking through as much of his filmography as I could before I stumbled upon “Memento.” The amount the movie did with such a small cast and budget and especially its style of storytelling left an impact on me strong enough to play a part in encouraging me to see other independent movies based on stories of a smaller scale with much to say from their themes and craftsmanship.
To this day, “Memento” remains one of my favorite movies largely due to this.
Over 15 years has passed since my teenaged self first saw Nolan’s work, and we now have “Oppenheimer” an incredibly ambitious, smart, terrifying, compelling movie that might possibly be my new favorite film from this director and screenwriter. Writing about this is admittedly a challenge. I saw this on IMAX (which you should definitely do so too if you can because it’s worth every bit of money and will only add to the already unique experience), left late in the night, and am still pondering about everything the film had to say about its main protagonist and its ideas.
Was what Oppenheimer in charge of more beneficial or detrimental to the world? Did Oppenheimer deserve much of what he experiences in this movie and in real life? Can we be forgiving of those who, despite being humans with hearts and souls and genuine connection to those around us, cause incredible pain or betray us in times when we arguably need them the most?
In many respects, “Oppenheimer” accomplishes for me what another astounding biopic drama and favorite of mine from 1970 “Patton” did. It doesn’t necessarily tell its real-life figure’s story in a way that shows him as completely good or completely evil but, instead, it presents him as a fascinating, frustrating, brilliant human being whose journey wasn’t afraid to tell his tale in a sincere, epic manner and captivated me for every minute of its length.
This film is a rare adult drama, treating its audience as such and knowing how best to throw its punches and send its audience members’ pulses on the edge of their seats to near perfection.
Cillian Murphy conveys humanity, raw brokenness, and impressive intelligence and humanity as the titular persona. He can command the attention of an advanced physics class with precise passion and a steady voice, and the devotion for what he loves doing, combined with his shakiness for what the consequences may be for future actions, speaks loudly from one glance from his direction. Somehow, some way, he mostly maintains physical stillness in extremely uncomfortable situations despite knowing deep down about the eeriness of what is happening. Part of the key to this movie working as phenomenally as it does traces from Murphy’s powerful performance.
Florence Pugh doesn’t have as much screen time as one might expect, and her acting reminds me why she’s one of my favorite recent actresses to see on-screen. She is raw and real while also maintaining her emotional honesty and always providing what’s needed to allow her characters and their impact to shine.
Additionally, Emily Blunt does incredible work, voicing the faithfulness and personally destructive sensibilities clashing with each other to somehow create the presence of someone who remains in her husband’s corner. A few of this movie’s best scenes come from close-ups of Murphy and Blunt sharing looks with each other, contemplating the frustration of the reality of their situation and hurt but never losing that uncanny devotion to each other. Both of these actors elevate these moments with their terrific chemistry and shared sense of individual brokenness.
This is a movie with a massive cast, in general, but every actor, including a couple of welcome cameos that are brief but leave an incredible impression, brings what’s needed and then some for the story. Benny Safdie and David Krumholtz, for instance, are names who you may not instantly recognize upon saying them aloud, but you have most likely have seen something involving them partly because they’re that good at doing so much with their roles. Here, actors, such as these, express their tight hold to their own ideas and their talent in this film for conveying a trust and charm that could just as easily go in another direction given the situation and their reactions to the conflict and what Oppenheimer does.
Josh Hartnett gives what is probably one of the best performances of his career in this movie. As a colleague and friend of the main character’s, he is suitably convincing as someone with a quiet charisma and undeniable intelligence. Much like his fellow actors, Hartnett is also terrific at revealing the subtly conflicting notion of whether to follow down his comrade’s path, especially as the situation reaches increasingly dangerous levels.
Matt Damon is terrific as the general and further expresses why seeing him in any film, good or bad, is a treat. Damon has a talent for turning a sarcastic comment into a hilarious response to a frustrating situation and playing someone who perhaps isn’t someone who’s always right but makes one satisfied for having seen him in a story. Many of the film’s funniest lines come from him and his blunt delivery.
And, then, there’s Robert Downey, Jr. Having remained fairly under the radar since his final appearance as Iron Man, the actor returns to a bigger film with some of his best work in a very long time. His charisma and fast manner of vocally responding to those around him lends well to some of the most heated moments in the movie and its direction. Intensity and a growing frustration in regards to the main conflict of the movie traces from his power and his unrelenting grip of wanting the tide of his situation to turn in a way that suits his personal needs and his alone.
Every performer in the movie from those with the main leading roles to those with smaller parts lend considerable presence to this film in great part because they work superbly off of each other. A great filmmaker selects performers for the role not simply because of the power or familiarity of their name alone but because they feel right and real for the character that they’re asked to step in the shoes of.
Sure, a familiar face or star can heighten the experience and credibility of a movie, even when someone is playing a smaller part in the story. This is especially true of an epic drama depending on an ensemble cast, such as this. The truth is, though, that a great cast with plenty of names heightens the experience of a movie because of how well they fit their part as they step in front of the camera that will allow the connection between themselves and others to feel sincere on a higher level.
Throughout this person’s life, the actors and their connection as characters feels sincere. They voice bits about their pasts leading to where they are. They debate about scientific theories and the right or wrong act to do in the face of heated pressure from others. They back each other up as colleagues and talk about which scientists influenced or matched their current beliefs the most.
Some have criticized Nolan’s work as cold and mathematical projects without too much empathy or humanity. While I understand where a few of their points come from, I don’t necessarily agree. The pain of Bruce Wayne is believably presented within the “Dark Knight” trilogy. Bale and Jackman in “The Prestige” wear their anger at each other and the increasing harm from their obsession with trying to outdo each other in that movie. And, “Oppenheimer” is great partly because all of the people in this version of the titular protagonist’s life effectively voice and express the impact upon this man’s presence in their lives for better or for worse. This man’s journey is so fascinating to watch in great part because the actors do excellent work in capturing the humanity and connections (both lasting and temporary) of those who played an important part in his story.
Hoyte van Hotema’s cinematography is astounding to look at. It is no secret that, similar to other works of Nolan’s filmography, this movie was shot with IMAX cameras with these specifically being 65 mm and 65 mm large-format film. Thanks to the keen visual eye behind the camera, deserts and mountainous areas swallow up the screen, containing unbelievable amounts of clarity of the grass and sky in the background. Such remarkable imagery adds to the epic scale of this story and appropriately escalates the tension in potentially threatening scenes involving hundreds of people. Nolan, along with his cinematographer, maintains his streak of shooting movies that are amazing in terms of their visual scope.
The music by Ludwig Goransson is magnificent, too. His music lends to the quiet simplicity needed for the optimistic flashbacks as well as the startling anxiety of later scenes. Sometimes, the instrumental compositions rise to fierce volumes but with purpose and sense of heightening the suspense or overwhelming frustration of what’s occurring on screen. Goransson’s wonderful composing also lends to the sheer weight and power of this story unfolding on screen. I still love re-listening to it.
Jennifer Lame’s editing is excellent. This is a movie that spends much of its time in conference rooms or college classrooms, and the intensity rarely lets up because fierce, deliberate cuts are made to show others’ reactions to the heat of a moment or a hard or somewhat calming truth. Scenes move with momentum and power, due in great part to this editor’s exceptional work.
Of course, Nolan, who directed and wrote the screenplay for this movie, continues to share his strong vision and his interest in stories centering around complex people following their obsessions and drive to astonishing ends. His mature voice and his superb sense of making something look and feel powerful on the screen stands strong as ever, and the intelligence and devotion poured into his work is shown in every sense of the word. Here is an adult drama dealing with uncomfortable feelings and unique ways of exploring the mindset of someone who others debate about whether he’s more of a hero or villain in their eyes. The script and direction doesn’t shy away from developing the anxiety and fear from its main character, and it also doesn’t tap dance around the complicated feelings of the protagonist and those who knew him. “Oppenheimer” is remarkable in part because of this.
Watching this reminded me how much I missed movies involving discussions in board rooms and conference rooms. The surroundings may be ordinary, but, under the hands of the right writer, actors, and filmmaker, debates and heated discussions can happen containing a ferocity and sense of character that outdoes most of the physical fights of almost any blockbuster out there. This movie understands that and sets an aggressive atmosphere with its fierce ideas and its deliberately established responses and performances. A couple of the scenes in this movie legitimately terrified me more than almost all of the horror movies I’d seen from this year so far.
Seeing this movie reminded me how much I missed dramas filled with remarkable talent playing souls who are not completely good or completely evil but who are trying to find what is right for themselves in a world unraveling around them.
Seeing “Oppenheimer” reminded me (even though there are countless stories that do that all the time for me in this medium) why cinema is important and why it is such a blessing for us to see movies in the theater.
It is a movie that captivated me, horrified me, stunned me, and left me thinking more than I had from a summer blockbuster in some time.
Some moments may be aggressive for others, but, to me, they work well into capturing the vision and mind of a complicated yet brilliant human and scientist.
In his journey of starting with indie films and then heading onto superhero films and then dabbling with sci-fi thrillers, Christopher Nolan now shares his remarkable vision to deliver one amazing example of a biopic drama and one of the best movies of 2023.
“Oppenheimer” brings a smile and energy to me because it is a rich example of bold, brilliant cinema and electrifying filmmaking.
I’m still stunned by it all.