Oppenheimer is a 2023 biographical thriller film written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Based on the 2005 biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, the film chronicles the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American theoretical physicist who was pivotal in developing the first nuclear weapons as part of the Manhattan Project, and thereby ushering in the Atomic Age. The film stars Cillian Murphy in the lead role.
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Oppenheimer is – as with most Nolan films – brilliantly narrated in the director’s trademark non-linear style. Dense with historical characters and information, the casual viewer can find themselves overwhelmed with the intensity of the presentation. But again, this is typical Nolan. This time, Nolan also wrote the film by himself and in that respect, has done a brilliant job.
The titular character is examined in great detail, both in realistic and surrealistic fashion. Nolan has remarked that much of what is portrayed in the film comes from the main character’s perspective. The (unnecessary) sub-plot of the film relating to government official Lewis Strauss’ character assassination of Oppenheimer, which the film twists masterly to have a karmic impact on Strauss’ failure to obtain Senate confirmation of his appointment as commerce secretary years later.
But of course, the only real enduring aspect of this film relates to the development of the atomic bomb, that killed thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ended World War II. Against the odds, despite his personality flaws, lack of mathematical or laboratory skills and overall mild-mannerisms, the theoretical physicist managed to harness American scientific and military resources to usher in a breakthrough that changed the world, for better or for worse.
Once, the Trinity test proves that the atomic bomb works, that climax becomes the highest emotional point of the film as everything goes downhill after that, for our main character as well as the world. Long drawn sequences of declining credibility and influence contrast heavily with his celebrity status, as the “Father of the Atomic Bomb” seeks to atone for his terrible deed. It is disturbing to watch but necessary to mirror Oppenheimer’s own fall from the peak of achievement to the lows of intense guilt and self-loathing.
In the final analysis, Oppenheimer is a flawed masterpiece – the Strauss sub-plot is indulgent padding at best – but is probably the kind of film that reminds us all of what effective cinema is all about. Highly recommended.
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