Christopher Nolan‘s “Oppenheimer” is a film of complexities. At its core, it’s a biopic about the man who led the Manhattan Project to success. The story isn’t told in the conventional sense, but mostly through his perspective. When pondering the nature of quantum physics we’re given brief glimpses inside Oppenheimer’s (Cillian Murphy) mind. The film alternates between color with heavy shadows and black and white footage. In IMAX, scenes significant to Oppenheimer suddenly change from widescreen to full frame. Sometimes these are visually stunning scenes, other times they are quiet conversations that left a lasting mark on his life. Most of Nolan’s recent films have had bombastic sequences that beg to be seen on the largest screen possible, but here, with the exception of the Trinity test, one could argue the IMAX format is pointless. Even though there are few scenes that will blow the audience away, being fully enveloped in this dreamlike narrative as it jumps through time and peers into his mind is a unique cinematic experience that can’t be replicated on smaller screens.
The film chooses Oppenheimer’s security clearance hearing of 1954 as its jumping-off point. At the time he held a Q-level clearance, the highest possible. It was due for renewal, but in the years following WWII he had made a few political enemies, and they were using this opportunity to discredit him. As he answers questions, we jump through time, experiencing all the events he is describing and defending. The film is sure to receive an Oscar nomination for editing as it expertly links the narrative that would easily be confusing in a lesser movie. We not only meet many of the famous physicists who influenced him including Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) and Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), but we also get to see the ingredients that made up his complex morality. He was a soft-spoken man but fiercely prideful with an ego to match. As a student, he nearly poisoned a professor that mocked him in front of the class! He wasn’t necessarily pro-communist, but would often attend their meetings to better understand perspectives that differed from his own. As the Atomic bomb inches closer to reality we begin to understand the dueling conflicts in his soul, something that haunted him for the rest of his life.
So much of this story is told through Cillian Murphy‘s incredible performance. Sure, there’s lots of exposition dialog, but it’s the things Cillian Murphy doesn’t say that most inform the character. A glance, a smirk, a flash of dread across his piercing eyes. Even the physicality of his movements shares what’s on his mind. In a movie jam-packed with amazing performances from Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Robert Downey Jr., Jason Clarke, Josh Hartnett, and Matt Damon, Murphy‘s performance is radiant.
Nearly every element of this movie is masterfully honed to craft this unique experience, but one area that falters is the run-time. The first half or so blows by, but in the third act, the narrative loses its steam for about 20 minutes before it’s very rewarding ending. As brilliant as the editing is, it would have been nice if a bit more had hit the cutting room floor.