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Oppenheimer review: Harrowing, horrifying and politically confused

By Sheroog Kubur, August 9 2023—

Trying to understand the morality of the man who created the atomic bomb isn’t the best use of anyone’s time, but Christopher Nolan took on the challenge with open arms. The film follows the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) during, before and after the creation of the atomic bomb during World War II. Based on the biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Nolan proved himself to be the only director capable of bringing such big ideas to the silver screen.  

Oppenheimer’s story isn’t about the creation of the atomic bomb. It’s about being thrust into the deepest depths of World War and Cold War politics at the same time. He fails miserably at this balancing act, constantly shifting his stance on his creation and how it should be used, either absolving himself of all responsibility or calling himself a prophet. Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), one of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project, summarizes this perfectly in one line, calling Oppenheimer a politician instead of a physicist.  

The nonlinear storytelling and deceitful sound design are the drivers of the dramatic tension — the rumbling that can either be a detonation or cheerful feet stamping, the sharp breaths that are either from Oppenheimer’s extramarital affair or frightened physicists testing their creation, the lights illuminating each room that either come from billowing flames and smoke or the crack of dawn approaching. There’s no point in experiencing the story where the audience can relax because everyone knows what’s coming, so Nolan channels this anxiety to make its three-hour runtime compelling for each minute. 

Further proving the film had no desire to sensationalize the A-bomb, it detonates at the one hour and 58-minute mark — leaving just over an hour of storytelling left to unpack. This is when the two worlds, Oppenheimer’s “fission” memories and Strauss’ “fusion” case, come to light and reveal the true politics of creating a world-ending weapon. 

Nolan’s use of practical effects throughout the film (and no, Nolan did not detonate a bomb to make the film) brought a sense of horror to the otherwise biographical film. For an audience that may not have known much about the first use of the A-bomb, the Trinity test was the clearest display of its power. That was what the war was about. That was the game these politicians were playing. That was Oppenheimer’s creation. 

The film was not perfect by any metric. The star-studded cast was mildly distracting at times, feeling more like a game of figuring out where the audience recognized each actor. Certain line deliveries were comical in serious moments, mainly from Robert Downey Jr.’s superhero-esque acting, and Kitty (Emily Blunt) and Oppenheimer’s relationship was very clinical, only truly developing in the last 30 minutes. 

The film opened with a two-line explanation of Prometheus’ story: he brought the fire of the gods to earth and for that, he was punished for all eternity. There was no clear punishment for Oppenheimer, but there was a burden he would always bear the responsibility of, as much as he didn’t want to. 

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