Oppenheimer – Film Review

Oppenheimer film

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds …”

– J. Robert Oppenheimer

So, here’s the thing about Chris Nolan’s latest cinematic behemoth, “Oppenheimer.” It’s massive, it’s deafening, it’s downright terrifying, and in classic Nolan fashion, it’s all sorts of mind-bending. The title character, portrayed by the brooding Cillian Murphy, is J. Robert Oppenheimer, the tortured genius who handed humanity the means of its own potential annihilation: the atom bomb. He’s the architect of nightmares and the original orchestrator of the Manhattan Project, which the Soviet intelligence suitably dubbed Enormoz. Apt, I’d say.

We’re led through a maze of Oppenheimer’s memories and nightmares, the epicentre being the Trinity nuclear test in the New Mexican desert, 1945. When the mushroom cloud bloomed, Oppenheimer was left channelling Vishnu and quoting the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds …” Nolan presents this in a deafening, breathtaking scale that only he can manage. But for all its grandeur, the film seems to trip a bit in its reach, obsessing over Oppenheimer’s tormented genius while glossing over the experiences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s people.

Playing with time in the way Nolan does best, we traverse the timeline on either side of that 1945 landmark, offering glimpses into Oppenheimer’s past as a young, restless scientist, electrified by quantum mechanics, and his post-war years of disillusionment and infamy. Murphy, as Oppenheimer, masterfully captures the man’s spectral solitude and emotional confinement.

The supporting cast doesn’t disappoint either. Damon plays a frustrated military overseer, Branagh the genial mentor Niels Bohr, while Downey Jr is the duplicitous Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss. Pugh and Blunt portray the women Oppenheimer loved and wronged, and Conti offers us a detached Albert Einstein. Although it’s somewhat peculiar that two of the most famous Jewish figures in history are played by non-Jewish actors, and Nolan doesn’t fully engage with the antisemitism Oppenheimer faced.

There’s a chilling scene showcasing Oppenheimer’s nervous breakdown during his stint at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he leaves a poisoned apple for his pedantic supervisor, Blackett. One can’t help but see this as a tragic metaphor for the once innocent realm of pre-war physics.

Nolan further cranks up the horror in the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing when Oppenheimer is expected to give a celebratory speech to his celebrating colleagues, and instead stumbles into a grim hallucination of the horror unleashed. Yet, Nolan, like Oppenheimer, never truly witnesses the carnage. He stays with Oppenheimer, shifting the lens away from the actual impact, and focusing on the man and his spiralling irrelevance.

One scene that stands out is a tense encounter between Oppenheimer and President Truman (played by Gary Oldman) in the White House Oval Office. It’s a moment that underlines the film’s paradox – captivating yet misdirected. It emphasises Oppenheimer’s guilt while also pointing out the larger historical perspective that’s been obscured. In the end, the film demonstrates that those in power couldn’t forgive Oppenheimer for bestowing upon them this horrific weapon. He is the tragic hero, lost in a whirl of shattered dreams and memories, embodying the sacrificial fetish of the American century.