Unlikeable, impassive, Cillian Murphy’s J. Robert Oppenheimer is a muted presence in a big bang movie. Thankfully, Christopher Nolan articulates Oppenheimer’s personality and sometimes his science through cinematic sound and vision.
At three hours, Oppenheimer harks back to the major movies of old with a cluster of cameos, many of them British. Some occur incidentally only to return to perfect effect, propelling the plot. It’s an example of Oppenheimer’s precision-construction – mirroring the complexity of the politics and physics.
Adapted by Nolan himself from the book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the film unfolds in three intercutting storylines. Oppenheimer’s rise from student to ‘father of the atom bomb’ is the straight-route to the blast. A post-bomb, anti-communist hearing is claustrophobic and Kafka-esque. A monochrome third strand sees Robert Downey Jr’s Lewis Strauss seek confirmation as a senator, scrutinised for his connections with Oppenheimer.
Oscar-worthy Downey Jr is scintillating as Strauss, the former director of the Atomic Energy Commission. Serpentine, smiling, he’s the epitome of the self-made businessman and politician. Nailing it live-wires the movie because Oppenheimer’s film is more about people than particles. People made the bomb, took the decisions.
The film’s wordy but fabulously shot. Show-not-tell wins the day. At the after-party for the bomb-drop on Japan, Oppenheimer’s hailed by his colleagues and forces a smile but sees only a room full of charred bodies and flakes of ash.
Matt Damon is pitch-perfect as Lt-General Leslie Groves, the military leader of the project, getting the funniest lines, full of bulldog bravura. Emily Blunt seems wasted as a background wife but true to Nolan’s switcheroo, returns to deliver a knockout moment. Best not to name-drop the cameos – spotting them is part of the fun.
Only Florence Pugh is badly served. An actor of her ability is more than capable of portraying fractured sensuality without the need for repeated nudity, counter to the subtlety of the film. It’s the only misstep.
As tightly constructed as the bomb itself, Oppenheimer’s intricacy is immersive and impressive. The soundtrack – crackling like a Geiger counter – is unsettling and primal, but not as effective as Hans Zimmer’s for Nolan’s Dunkirk.
Rather, Oppenheimer’s tension comes from the collision of politics and personalities, building to a screw-tight finish, and finally – thanks largely to Downey Jr - to an emotional payoff.
See it on a cinema screen. Shot partly in IMAX 65 mm, even the biggest TV screen won’t do it justice. More intelligible than Tenet, as involving as Inception