This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.
There are few directors in the world with the pure pulling power of Christopher Nolan. Each one of his films comes with a huge amount of pre-release hype, his trademark desire to keep things a secret until the film is out, and the fact that there aren't many directors who get mega studio budgets for films as original and daring as his.
Following his public bust up with Warner Bros over Tenet and their handling of films during and after the pandemic lockdowns Nolan has gone to Universal for his next film, an epic biographical film on the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who oversaw and created, the atomic bomb.
Nolan's films are often visually arresting and this is no different, the black & white and IMAX photography by Hoyte van Hoytema is incredible, filling the largest IMAX screens with visions of fire and nuclear fusion. There's no denying that Nolan knows how to tell a story on the largest canvas imaginable, ever since that truck flip in The Dark Knight he has been a flag waver for the power of the biggest image possible.
It helps that he's clearly listened to the criticisms of Tenet's sound mixing. The sound design by Randy Torres is incredible, at times stripping away all sound and others making it almost unbearable as Oppenheimer himself can barely comprehend what he has created. It helps that there sound is underscored by a very fine score by Ludwig Göransson who manages to create musical motifs that feel at times ahead of the time and others perfectly complimenting the time period.
What works best, however, is Cillian Murphy's performance as Oppenheimer. Long stretches of the film just look at his face as he obsesses over his ideas, over his actions and ultimately what his legacy will be. It's no surprise that the film is about a man's obsession, a subject that Nolan returns to time and time again, but the core conflict about one man's jealousy of another brings Oppenheimer more in line with The Prestige than say the big budget thrills of Inception.
Murphy's performance is mesmerising but Robert Downey Jr as Lewis Strauss is perhaps the actor's finest work to date, certainly his most complex performance since Zodiac. The growing relationship between Oppenheimer and Strauss calls to mind the painful relationship between Mozart and Salieri in Amadeus. It's a compelling portrait of how men are a destructive force.
If there's a criticism, and at three hours there definitely is, it's not pacing or run time but rather that the women aren't entirely fully realised. Oppenheimer's relationship with women is interesting, and not entirely fully realised. Florence Pugh, Emily Blunt and Olivia Thirlby are all compelling performers but since the bomb is Oppenheimer's obsession, that are sidelined.
Even so, as the film builds to tension filled stakes, and Oppenheimer's own mind starting to crack under the weight of his creations, it's clear that Nolan is at the height of his powers, using multiple timelines to build around a single moment in history. What might be surprising is that dropping the bomb is not that moment in history, Nolan is more interested in how one misinterpretation of a conversation can have long lasting effects.
Oppenheimer releases in UK cinemas on July 21st, 2023.