Oppenheimer: A Mammoth Moment In History On 70MM Film

Traditionally, the summer is a season of escapism, blockbusters, and franchises in the movie industry. Oppenheimer, heavy in dialogue, tone, and subject matter is this summer’s exception to the rule. The father of the A-Bomb gets the big-screen treatment in this prestige film about one of the most important events in human history that has taken summer cinema by storm.

Directed by Christopher Nolan and starring a formidable ensemble headlined by Cillian Murphy as the eponymous subject, the film is based on the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer and is particularly guided by his biography, American Prometheus. In this case, the symbolism is apt. Just as Prometheus was punished in the Greek myths for stealing fire from the Gods to give to humanity, so too did Oppenheimer suffer greatly (albeit a much less macabre fate) for decoding the secrets of the atom in the service of his country and the world.

Much of the facts depicted in the film are a matter of historical record, so I don’t personally see any danger of being spoiled before going to the movie theater. The film depicts a large chunk of Oppenheimer’s life nonlinearly, from his student days in Europe and his trailblazing career in academia pioneering the field of theoretical physics in the United States to, more pertinently, his rise to the head of the Manhattan Project and the creation of the atomic bomb, his subsequent appointment as an advisor to the Atomic Energy Commission after the war and his downfall as his security clearance was revoked, discredited in the eyes of the public as a security risk at the height of the McCarthy era. 

Murphy’s incredibly emotive performance and Nolan’s technical mastery of the lens come together in a powerfully evocative way to unpack the complexities and contradictions of arguably one of the most brilliant scientists of the 20th century. I would be remiss if I did not say that the supporting actors absolutely held their own in every scene as well, with special mention going to Robert Downey Jr. for his performance as Lewis Strauss, Oppenheimer’s chief tormentor; whose capacity for resentment, manipulation and vindictiveness reveals itself in a slow burn, climaxing in an act of betrayal that would end up haunting him at a crucial moment in his career that unknowingly mirrors Oppenheimer’s as Strauss continually attempts to justify his actions until the bitter end. Most notably, the depiction of the Trinity test at Los Alamos has been buzzed about since the trailer was released and I must say that it is undisputedly the highlight of Nolan’s career. He treats the moments leading up to the explosion with the gravitas and care that it deserves as he ratchets up the tension using the setting as the main focus with the acting merely accenting the scene. When it happens…all I’ll say is that it’s the closest anyone who wasn’t there will ever get to experience the emotion of humanity entering the atomic age. It is also an example of how Nolan uses the IMAX format to the movie’s utmost advantage – and I suggest that moviegoers watch the film in IMAX theaters for the most immersive viewing experience. My only negative note surrounding the film is its length. Three hours is a very long time to watch a film, even a historical biopic like this, and I believe that if it was tightened by 15 minutes or so, it would have been phenomenal. But that’s only a small, very subjective quibble in an overall excellent movie. 

In summary, I would say that this film is one of the finest movies released so far this year – in fact, it’s arguable that this could be hands down the best movie of the year period - and I would not be surprised one bit if there’s at least one Oscar in its future.