Christopher Nolan is one of a handful of directors who can reasonably lay claim to the title of "greatest of his generation." Oppenheimer will do nothing to damage that claim, and plenty to advance it.
Everything about the film screams “epic.”
Let’s start with the cast – you’re doubtless already aware of the talent-heavy top-billed ensemble who have been doing the rounds promoting the film. Cillian Murphy as the titular J Robert Oppenheimer, the key scientist behind the first atomic bomb; Emily Blunt as his wife Kitty; Matt Damon and Robert Downey Jr as the military men overseeing the project; and Florence Pugh as Oppenheimer’s mistress Jean Tatlock.
Beyond this, though, every “minor” role seems to find another A-lister cropping up on screen. Kenneth Branagh, Rami Malek, Jack Quaid, Josh Hartnett, Olivia Thirlby and Tom Conti are just some of the big names taking on roles that, under another director, would likely be cast from unknowns grateful of a half-day on set.
Gary Oldman pops up for what he modestly described to Deadline as "one scene, a page and a half" as President Harry Truman, but which feels like an Oscar-winning turn in the hands of such a talented director.
Nolan is a man of such attention to detail that even his own eldest daughter, Flora, makes a brief appearance in a harrowing apocalyptic scene. Nolan’s explanation? “The point is that if you create the ultimate destructive power, it will also destroy those who are near and dear to you."
There are plenty of other flags that we’re dealing with “serious” fare here, rather than the bubble gum offerings of the global box office’s other big release this weekend, Barbie (out in the UAE on August 31).
The frequent use of black and white for the scenes of the US establishment’s attempts to discredit the physicist due to his post-war pacifism and left-leaning politics are a solid reminder that this is “art,” as is the film’s three-hour runtime.
That hefty length is perhaps as useful a viewpoint from which to judge Oppenheimer’s merit as any. Even as someone who literally watches films for a living, any requirement to spend upwards of around the 130-minute mark in a cinema seat sparks an internal debate as to whether it actually requires any longer than two hours to unfold. Oppenheimer passes the two-hour test with flying colours, and the chunky 180 minutes went by in a flash, pardon the questionable atomic pun.
Part courtroom procedural, part history lesson in the development of humanity's most terrifying creation, part primer in the basics of theoretical physics, part romantic drama following the philandering of a flawed scientific genius with a touch of the Don Juan, and even home to some almighty explosions that would put your typical summer blockbuster to shame – there’s an awful lot to unpack here, and Nolan does so expertly.
It’s testament to the filmmaker’s skill that, whether he’s telling the story of a fictional, caped billionaire keeping crime off the streets of Gotham or one of the 20th century’s most significant, yet least celebrated, scientists, Nolan is able to get right under the skin of his subjects and make the audience feel like we’ve known the characters all our lives.
This applies not only to Murphy’s Oppenheimer, but Blunt’s put-upon wife, Pugh’s libertine mistress, Damon’s grudgingly admiring military master and Downey Jr’s scheming naval officer turned would-be politician too. By the end of the film we know every one of these characters, their hopes, dreams and motivations, as if they were our best friend – or worst enemy, in certain cases.
Ever since Nolan’s 2000 breakout Memento, it’s become almost compulsory for the conversation to turn to Oscars each time the director releases a new film. Thus far in his career, although his films have racked up plenty of wins, Nolan himself has been restricted to five unsuccessful writer/director nominations.
Oppenheimer could well be the film that finally changes that.