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Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Observer

‘Oppenheimer’: American Atlas


In many aspects, Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” is superlative. The gorgeous cinematography with its blues, golds and cutting blacks, the beautiful renderings of Oppenheimer’s atomic imaginings, and the perfect production design make the film a rare marvel by themselves. The acting isn’t marked with eruptions of passions, but rather with a dissolution of the performers into these characters — with Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich’s performances at the head of a fearsome pack. The nonlinear storytelling maintains momentum through the film’s three-hour runtime, which feels earned because of the depth of its inquiry.

The presentation and performance of the film is superb. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and Nolan have continued their vision from prior collaborations “Dunkirk” and “Tenet,” and this palette and mood remains enchanting. Nolan’s sound mixing demons have also been exorcised for the most part here, though the dialogue would have benefitted from a little more volume, which is a compliment in the sense that what these characters say matters. The story demands so much attention that Ludwig Göransson’s score often goes unnoticed, but in the two scenes when it is most impactful — a trip to Europe with Oppenheimer and the evocative countdown to the Trinity test — it is great. The film builds an incredibly convincing world, and the dream is maintained by a truly stellar cast. Cillian Murphy conveys the nigh-unbearable weight that always seems to rest upon Oppenheimer, fully embodying the character in a truly complete performance. Ehrenreich, as a bureaucrat whose true colors emerge as he learns unexpected information, has great magnetism, as well as some of the film’s most fulfilling moments. Downey Jr.’s electrifying presence meets a wonderful portrayal of Lewis Strauss, and as his character unfolds, he hits every emotional note and intention spot-on. His performance is likely to garner him a best supporting actor nomination.

As wide as the film’s survey of its subject’s life is, no details feel superfluous. The film feels dedicated to and succeeds in providing an accurate portrait of a messy and paradoxical man. There is nothing in Nolan’s screenplay that necessarily obstructs our connection with Oppenheimer; perhaps some audience members will find him moving for most of the runtime. Either way, when the film focuses on his unjust persecution and his great paranoia, he is certainly moving. There are moments when he is overcome with nuclear fear and, as he remains still and thinks, the background behind him shakes. As the noise grows and the shaking continues, it is easy to identify with this panic, and in these moments, the audience can start to feel his burden.

The ending of this story, in which Oppenheimer faces unmerited attacks from the government, is deeply sympathetic and emblematic of how many people feel now in a nation similarly afraid of mere ideas. While his persecution becomes the focus, Strauss’ arc also kicks into high gear, and Nolan interweaves these two stories to push the tension even higher. It is an urgent example and exposé of society’s greatest faults, and for this segment of the story alone, “Oppenheimer” is worth watching.

There is always excellence orbiting the titular core of “Oppenheimer.” When the subject cannot shine, sometimes the rest of the film compensates.  But when the audience connects with him, then the depth of Nolan’s tragedy and analysis of the human struggle reveals itself. While Nolan uses the source biography’s title for Oppenheimer, “American Prometheus,” as a guiding image for the film, Oppenheimer at his most compelling is a distorted American Atlas, bearing a world he himself must help create. When the audience feels that weight, the film is truly enlightening and inspiring.

Title: “Oppenheimer”

Director: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5