Explosive Genius: Nolan’s Award-Winning Oppenheimer Biopic

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Benny Safdie, Jason Clarke, Kenneth Branagh, Dylan Arnold, David Krumholtz, Matthew Modine, David Dastmalchian, Alden Ehrenreich, Tony Goldwyn, Michael Angarano, Jack Quaid, Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby, Dane DeHaan
Cert: 15
Running time: 180 mins

Christopher Nolan delivers what is certain to be a serious awards contender with this stunning biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. Beautifully shot, brilliantly acted and impressively written, it’s one of the best films of the year.

The film unfolds in two parallel timelines, with Nolan cross-cutting between them. The first, entitled Fission, is shot in colour and begins with Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) as a student, taking him through his stewardship of the Manhattan Project, the creation of the atom bomb and its eventual deployment by the US government in 1945. The second, Fusion, is shot in black and white, and details both a security clearance hearing that is essentially a kangaroo court aimed at discrediting Oppenheimer, and a separate hearing involving Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Louis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr) and his potential appointment to the Senate, the significance of which becomes clear as the film unfolds.

Throughout the film, important figures in Oppenheimer’s life emerge, including: his wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt); his Communist mistress Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), Lt Gen Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), who appoints Oppenheimer as the leader of the Manhattan Project; best friend Isidor Rabi (David Krumholz); fellow scientist Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett); Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) and dog-with-a-bone prosecuting attorney Roger Robb (Jason Clarke), who dominates the security clearance hearing.

Murphy (who’s been a reliable supporting presence in previous Nolan movies) is simply terrific in the lead, simultaneously portraying Oppenheimer as arrogant, vulnerable, naïve and visionary. To that end, his ice blue eyes are put to extraordinary use, a faraway gaze that takes in both the future and the past, as well as a universe composed of atoms and electron waves. Murphy essentially makes you feel Oppenheimer’s every thought and it’s intoxicating.

The supporting cast are equally astonishing, particularly Downey Jr, who is on career best form as Strauss – his Best Supporting Actor nomination is surely already in the bag. It’s a truly magnificent turn, initially starstruck and then increasingly full of resentment and bitterness as he finds himself opposed to Oppenheimer at various turns. Damon runs him a close second, with a delightful turn as the bullish Groves, and there are memorable turns from a multitude of great character actors as the other scientists at Los Alamos.

The script, skilfully adapted from Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherman’s biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, explores a number of compelling themes, from the central Prometheus parallel (giving mankind the seed of its own fiery destruction) to ideas of guilt and redemption, as well as complex political machination. There’s also the subtle, intriguing suggestion that Nolan sees Oppenheimer as an incendiary twentieth century artist, akin to the likes of T.S. Elliot or Picasso, both of whom receive prominent name-drops.

Visually, the film is simply stunning, especially if you’re lucky enough to see it in IMAX on 70mm, the way the director intended – the giant shots of Murphy’s face are worth the price of admission alone. The level of technical achievement throughout is astonishing, from Jennifer Lame’s pacey editing to Hoyt van Hoytema’s striking cinematography, to Ludwig Göransson’s powerful score. Similarly, the sound design is extraordinary, particularly in the aftermath of Hiroshima, when Oppenheimer is forced to confront the magnitude of what he has done, in the face of a seemingly rapturous audience, one of the film’s stand-out scenes.

The central set-piece is, of course, the Trinity explosion, complete with an extremely tense build-up and a note of blacker-than-black comedy, as all the scientists agree that there is a “near zero” chance that they won’t ignite the atmosphere and destroy the world in the process, but none of them can really say for certain. The actual detonation is another example of the film’s impressive sound design work, but to say any more would be to dilute the impact.

Perhaps Nolan’s most impressive achievement is the fact that he manages to make the hour-long third act of the film (the two hearings) just as compelling as all the bomb-related stuff that precedes it. Effectively, it’s prestige courtroom drama, complete with the genre’s requisite shock twists and turns.

In short, this is a stunning piece of work on every level, a compelling, beautifully constructed biopic that leaves you with plenty to think about. It’s also one of the best films of the year. Don’t miss it.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Matthew Turner

Check out more reviews at Action Reloaded


  • Matthew Turner

    A lifelong film fanatic, Matthew Turner (FilmFan1971) is a London-based critic and author, as well as the co-host of Fatal Attractions, a podcast on erotic thrillers. His favourite film is Vertigo and he hasn't missed an episode of EastEnders since 1998.