If the concept of “hold my beer” were a human, it would be Christopher Nolan.
He is one of those rare filmmakers who constantly challenges the way we watch film without being the guy that wants you to know he is challenging the way you watch film. Remember that this is the guy who told a film in reverse and did so brilliantly in Memento, furthered that level of cinematic confusion in a different way with Insomnia, and then took the Batman mythos and told it in a way that was closer to being grounded in reality than I had ever seen before. (Heck, it could be argued that his success with that trilogy formed the basis for the Snyder-verse itself.) Add to those films like Dunkirk, Inception, The Prestige, and Interstellar and while all of them have completely different subject matter, they are all distinctly his while each having its own identity.
And with Oppenheimer, we hold his beer again.
Based on the book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, this IS the story of the man that changed history by heading up The Manhattan Project, but it is also SO much more than that. Although the creation of the Atomic Bomb is at the center of this story, it’s Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) and the consequences of his choices that takes this story to a different level. Beginning as he is an up-and-coming theoretical physicist trying to find his way to trying to exist as a freethinker in a time where that type of philosophy branded on a Communist and then becoming the “father of the atomic age,” his story is complimented by another storyline involving Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.) and the connections between them with consequences both positive and negative for both. Nolan himself also wrote the adaptation of the novel, and in my research, I found out that he wrote it in the first person I became that much more intrigued. Nolan simply directs this thing to maximum capacity with heart-racing intensity while telling a quality story that took a hold of me and never let go. Nolan also uses what we learned in our history textbooks from the deepest corners of our memories to illustrate the things he doesn’t have to as the country learns the aftermath of the events in Nagasaki and Hiroshima to further the high level of emotion, playing on the “it’s not what you see, it’s what you don’t see on the screen” concept on a superior level. When you know how a story ends (and maybe you don’t in totality with this film given the layers that are added as the script unfolds that I honestly did not see coming) but still find yourself second-guessing what you think you know, THAT’s a good film. Add to that the fact that Nolan has publicly claimed that there is ZERO CGI used here, the visuals of this film take on a whole new level of impressive.
And add to THAT the fact that Matt Damon has said that he had an agreement with his wife to take a break from acting with Nolan calling being the only exception to that agreement, so that break had to be put on hold. I for one am glad that was in place as his portrayal of General Leslie Groves is one that really gives the gravity to this film as it requires. But he doesn’t do it alone.
If I listed all the major players involved in this cast, it would seem like I am padding words into this review, so I will give you some of the higher of the highlights. Jason Clarke is one of those actors that tends to be “that guy that was in that thing,” but my hopes here is that his performance in Oppenheimer is one that takes him to the next level in a storyline that puts him in the same frame as all of the heavy hitters in this cast. David Krumholtz also stands out here as Oppenheimer’s best friend, confidante, and colleague as he tries to navigate the true reason they are involved in The Manhattan Project while proving to those involved why they are worthy of being there. Florence Pugh also pays dividends to her role as the woman who functions as one of the few distractions Dr. Oppenheimer has in his life although perhaps not in the healthiest of ways.
All of this is great, but without the major personalities in this story, none of what I am talking about holds any water. And when you are filling a three-hour run time, the spotlighted performances HAVE to be on-point, and they DELIVER. Emily Blunt plays Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, with a performance that shows her strength from their very first meeting through the final frames (literally) on a level that made me forget at times that she is actually British. She fully embodies Kitty heart, soul, and voice that feeds Murphy nothing short of perfectly. Downey’s performance reinforces why he is telling everyone and anyone that will listen that this is his favorite movie to work on over his entire career. His Lewis Strauss shows just enough arrogance to convey that he is a self-made man that knows how to assemble the right talent but also making me believe that he is more than he actually may be.
And then, there’s Cillian Murphy.
Watching him and thinking to myself “this is the same guy that was The Scarecrow in Batman Begins" was simply mind-boggling. His performance here absolutely CRUSHES it on every level from the cold and calculating PhD who believes that the math should prove everything (and even HIS has to get called into question from time to time) to the boy inside the man that just seems to want to be accepted by everyone that matters to him makes him nothing short of a force of nature here. The thing that makes his portrayal of the title character that much more amazing is that we don’t really get a look into who he was as a child but with the focus required to keep up with the story it feels like the story that we DO have explains more about his psyche that may have been intended and bleeds through on Murphy’s performance alone. There are also some surprise cameos here that I am not going to spoil here since they were not given to me at all, so enjoy that as well.
It may only be July at this point, but I honestly don’t think that will affect the ability of the team behind Oppenheimer to go ahead and make that reservation for the truck to haul in all of the hardware this film deserves to bring home. Under normal circumstances, this is the kind of film that would have been held back until later in the year to have maximum impact on the decision makers of award shows, but I don’t see how hard this film hit me going away any time soon. Given the state of the entertainment industry at the time I am writing this review, I would not be shocked to see it get another theatrical run near or during the holiday season as a refresher, but I also don’t see more than a couple of other films releasing this year coming anywhere near this one as “the complete package”. Simply put… WOW.