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‘Oppenheimer’ Review: A Man for Our Time

“Oppenheimer” offers a timeless portrayal of a man whose story resonates with our contemporary world

Cillian Murphy
Image Source: Cillian Murphy during the 'The Party' premiere during the 67th Berlinale Festival Berlin at Berlinale Palace on February 13, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. (Shutterstock @ Denis Makarenko)

In Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” the early scenes present a mesmerizing portrayal of J. Robert Oppenheimer, played with brilliance by Cillian Murphy. Oppenheimer, an American physics student in the 1920s, is depicted as a brilliant and enigmatic figure with a multifaceted personality. The film showcases his fascination with quantum mechanics and his vision of particles and waves, beautifully rendered in a phantasmagorical style typical of Nolan’s work.

As the story unfolds, “Oppenheimer” delves into a more realistic portrayal of the man behind the myth. The film adopts Nolan’s signature slicing and dicing of chronology, psychodrama, scientific inquiry, political intrigue, and historical events, resulting in a heady, dense, and dizzying cinematic experience. Oppenheimer’s creation of the atomic bomb and his involvement in the Manhattan Project become central themes, as the movie explores his complex character and the impact of his work on the world.

Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of Oppenheimer is nothing short of phenomenal. He captures the character’s elegance, intellect, and sensuality, making him a fascinating and multi-layered figure. The movie juxtaposes Oppenheimer’s aristocratic demeanor with his leftist views, creating a captivating dichotomy. The depiction of his marriage to Kitty, portrayed powerfully by Emily Blunt, adds further depth to his character.

The film’s narrative is structured around the 1954 hearing of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, where Oppenheimer was accused of having Communist ties and subsequently stripped of his security clearance. This framing device weaves the hearing into the fabric of the film, revealing hidden continuities that shaped Oppenheimer’s life and his involvement in the creation of the bomb.

Nolan masterfully builds suspense as the race to complete the Manhattan Project unfolds. The scientific breakthroughs, espionage, and political intrigue keep viewers on the edge of their seats. However, the momentous climax—the testing of the atomic bomb in the Trinity test—is portrayed impressionistically, somewhat dampening its impact.

As the movie progresses, it transitions into a somber meditation on the consequences of the bomb, Oppenheimer’s status as a Cold War scapegoat, and the moral implications of his work. The film introduces a trendy doomsday message about the world being destroyed by nuclear weapons, but some may argue that it becomes too self-absorbed in the portrayal of Oppenheimer’s guilt.

Overall, “Oppenheimer” remains true to Nolan’s maximalist style, leaving a lasting impact on viewers. Cillian Murphy’s performance as J. Robert Oppenheimer is exceptional, providing a mesmerizing anchor to the film’s complex narrative. Nolan’s work continues to push the boundaries of storytelling and cinema, delivering an urgent and essential exploration of history and humanity.

As the film “Oppenheimer” progresses, it delves deeper into Oppenheimer’s personal and professional struggles. The narrative explores his ideological battles, both with himself and with others, as he grapples with the moral implications of his creation—the atomic bomb. The film thoughtfully examines Oppenheimer’s dual roles as a scientific genius and a man burdened by the ethical complexities of his work.

Throughout the movie, Oppenheimer’s relationships with those around him play a significant role in shaping his character. His encounters with historical figures like Albert Einstein, played by Tom Conti, and Major General Leslie Groves, portrayed by Matt Damon, add layers of tension and nuance to the story. The exchanges between Oppenheimer and Groves, in particular, highlight the fascinating dynamics between the military and the academic world.

As the film explores Oppenheimer’s political views and his association with leftist intellectuals, it reflects the paranoia and climate of fear that characterized the early days of the Cold War. The tension between Oppenheimer’s ideals and the geopolitical landscape of the time presents a complex portrait of a man torn between his scientific vision and the broader consequences of his work.

“Oppenheimer” also emphasizes the collaborative nature of scientific discovery, highlighting the contributions of various scientists and researchers involved in the Manhattan Project. The film portrays the intensity and urgency of their work, coupled with the recognition that the discovery of nuclear fission is both groundbreaking and potentially catastrophic.

Nolan’s trademark use of non-linear storytelling adds an element of complexity to the narrative, weaving together multiple threads of Oppenheimer’s life and experiences. While some viewers may find this approach challenging to follow, it enhances the film’s sense of depth and intrigue.

The movie’s critical weakness lies in its portrayal of the Trinity test—the detonation of the atomic bomb. While visually striking, it lacks the awe and horror that the historical event invoked. The emotional impact of such a monumental moment is somewhat overshadowed by the film’s intricate narrative structure.

Nonetheless, “Oppenheimer” remains a compelling and thought-provoking examination of a complex historical figure. Cillian Murphy’s commanding performance anchors the film, supported by an exceptional ensemble cast. The movie delves into the moral ambiguity of scientific advancements and the weight of responsibility carried by those who shape history.

As the film concludes with Oppenheimer’s fight against the invention of the hydrogen bomb and his subsequent downfall during the McCarthy era, it leaves viewers with a poignant reflection on the consequences of scientific achievement and the moral dilemmas that continue to resonate in the modern world.

In typical Christopher Nolan fashion, “Oppenheimer” challenges its audience to contemplate the impact of scientific progress and the enduring legacy of those who shaped the course of history. The film serves as both a tribute to the scientific minds that changed the world and a cautionary tale of the ethical dilemmas that accompany such profound discoveries.

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