Nolan possesses a confidence of which most directors only dream. He takes huge risks, whether it be with special effects, unconventional storytelling devices or wild set-pieces. Replete with all those things and more, “Oppenheimer” is Nolan’s most ambitious film – and quite possibly his best.
Robert Oppenheimer lived a conflicted life. On the one hand, he knew that it was vital for America to develop an atomic bomb before any other country, especially Germany or Russia. On the other hand, he was distressed to learn that President Truman would not consider using the bomb as merely a threat to force Japan to surrender. Once the bomb was dropped – and dropped again – Oppenheimer became a staunch opponent of the nuclear arms race.
As the titular figure, Cillian Murphy gives his best performance yet. Nolan depicts Oppenheimer in three time periods: young physics student, the head of Los Alamos Lab and post-war pariah. Murphy is tremendous in all three. He has always been adept at saying a lot with his expressions. You can see the weight of the world on his face as Oppenheimer agonizes over decision after decision.
Based on a 700-page book, the movie has to cover a lot of ground. Most times, directors will excise characters or combine several into a composite character. To the occasional detriment of the film, Nolan appears to have kept every character intact. Nolan would have done well to have subtitles with each character’s name upon their first appearance, because it was difficult to keep them all straight.
There are any number of Oscar-worthy performances in some of the major supporting roles. However, it would take far too long to delve into all of the dozens of tremendous performances.
Robert Downey Jr. plays Adm. Lewis Strauss, an early champion of Oppenheimer’s theoretical quantum physics proposals. With about 20 years of aging makeup, Downey is barely recognizable. After portraying the conceited scientist Tony Stark (Iron Man) in the Marvel films, Downey is perfect as the self-important Strauss.
Early on, Oppenheimer spends a few fleetingly romantic moments with his wife, Kitty, played by Emily Blunt. At first, she irritated me with her constant, drunken belittling of her husband. Blunt’s performance subtly grows more powerful as the film goes on. Kitty’s demonstrative nature whenever she’s on screen pays off in a magnificent scene near the end where she dresses down a smug prosecutor.
Matt Damon commands the screen as Col. Leslie Groves, who is in charge of getting top scientists to win the nuclear arms race. He puts up with Oppenheimer’s eccentricities; the two of them have a generally collegial relationship as each one is under immense pressure to reach the same goal.
The Trinity Test is in the realm of the top moments in human history. Nolan had a monumental task trying to portray the sheer magnitude of the situation, but the two hours of the film leading up to the test fully prepare the audience for the scene. It is a sight to behold, especially in IMAX. Using mostly practical effects (sans an actual A-bomb), Nolan expertly captures what it must have been like to bear witness to such a feat.
Immediately following the test, the film hits the only lull of its three hours. Admittedly, there really is nothing that could have held the audience’s attention following the Trinity Test. For the most part, the film never feels as long as it is.
“Oppenheimer” will undoubtedly win dozens of awards; they will be well-earned. It may not be my favorite Nolan film, but “Oppenheimer” is his best. A
‘Dead City’ worth a look
Lauren Cohen and Jeffrey Dean Morgan reprise their roles as Maggie and Negan, respectively, for “Walking Dead: Dead City” – the newest spinoff in the “Walking Dead” universe.
At times it feels as if AMC has been beating a dead horse with its refusal to end all things Walking Dead. The quality of the main show, and especially that of “Fear the Walking Dead,” suffered mightily over the last five or six years. Thankfully, “Dead City” reinvigorates some of the excitement that has been lost.
Maggie and Negan are two of the better characters from the original “Walking Dead.” “Dead City” finds Maggie five years on from the end of the original show, in search of her kidnapped son. It pains her to have to call on Negan, the man who callously murdered her husband 15 years earlier, to help.
Besides the interactions between the two, the New York setting is the best part of the show. It’s dirty and rat-infested, and zombies shuffle around everywhere. The set decorators probably did not have to do a whole lot of work.
Jeff Mellinger is a screen writer and film buff. He holds a BA in Film Studies and an MFA in film production. He lives in Concord.