Maverick Life


Oppenheimer: Simply mind-blowing 

Oppenheimer: Simply mind-blowing 
A section of the official poster for Oppenheimer. (courtesy of Universal pictures)

Christopher Nolan’s bombastic, dread-inducing epic Oppenheimer will convince you that the Father of the Atomic Bomb was the most influential person in history. 

In a nutshell

Three hours of military personnel, scientists and politicians talking in rooms, yet not a single boring moment. Christopher Nolan claims that his days of superhero movies are behind him, but give the man a production team and carte blanche and he could turn a pot plant into the greatest, most complex antihero of our time. 

J Robert Oppenheimer, Father of the Atomic Bomb, is no pot plant. Nolan believes, and will likely lead you to believe, he’s the most influential person in human history, not because of what he created himself, but because of what he set in motion – a metaphorical chain reaction that could culminate in a literal one which destroys our planet. 

Wielding Cillian Murphy’s inscrutably charming solemnity, Nolan’s character study of a charismatic, womanising, brilliant scientist and the creation of atomic weaponry may be the most technically brilliant of his unbelievably illustrious career.

Where to watch it:

Oppenheimer is showing in cinemas from 21 July

A closer look

“Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this, he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.” These opening words, deifying Oppenheimer, likening him to the Greek god of fire, immediately invites the audience into a philosophical discussion.

The success of the Manhattan Project could only ever have led to tens of thousands of innocent people dead. Oppenheimer’s justification for going through with it anyway is the notion that in doing so, it would save millions. It would not just end World War 2, it would end war itself, a peace ruled by the threat of total annihilation. Oppenheimer’s view posited atomic weaponry as the largest-scale example of the Trolley Problem in the history of life.  

While Oppenheimer is considered the father of the atom bomb, the nucleus of the film is the looming destructive power of a hydrogen bomb – a super-bomb, a weapon of mass destruction which humanity now wields and is yet to use, with a thousand times the force of an atom bomb. If Oppenheimer is the father of the A-bomb, you could argue that he is the reluctant grandfather of the H-bomb, and that is the source of the film’s profundity. 

Cillian Murphy, with his suave and thoughtful angst, is the perfect lead to embody this inner turmoil. The co-actors that weigh in from every angle of the dilemma are just as excellently cast. The list is so impressive that it’s laughable. A-listers frequently drop in for quick cameos. In a film so star-studded, one can’t tell whether the performances are so excellent because of the writing, or whether every line seems clever and poignant because these actors can turn any words to gold. 

Matt Damon,left, gives a surprising performance as Leslie Groves, a gruff general (Photo: Universal Pictures)

Several other big names take on roles outside of their typical repertoires. Matt Damon gives a surprising performance as a gruff, impatient general, and Emily Blunt is wonderfully infuriating as Oppenheimer’s spurned wife, but most notable is Robert Downey Jr as Lewis Strauss, a founder of the Atomic Energy Commission who plays a more important role than his early scenes suggest. An older man with a softened brow and less of a wise guy than his usual shtick, you wouldn’t know Downey Jr could be so potent as Strauss unless you’d seen it – he’s sure to nab  awards for Best Supporting Actor. 

Robert Downey Jr, right, is potent as Lewis Strauss (Image: Universal Pictures)

What’s the vibe?

The quality that makes Nolan’s films so persistently compelling is gravitas. Every interaction, every little or slow moment feels important. That is no simple feat, but still much easier to achieve in science fiction films about battles in peoples’ dreams or space travel, than a scientific race in the 1940s. Nolan manages to maintain this grandeur by constantly reminding us of the stakes and taking us into the titular character’s conflicted mind, where psychedelic visions of vibrating atoms and nuclear fallout become real. Oppenheimer immediately feels like a prophetic fable of the fate of humanity.

It’s as mind-blowing as Nolan’s Memento, but the questions it evokes will not be limited to dinner parties or philosophy lectures – they are practical, terrifying and real. The story is also a lot more complicated than his Inception, and yet easier to understand. It jumps in and out of decades at the drop of a soft-brimmed hat, but a little black-and-white and sneaky exposition are enough to make sure you know what’s going on, even when you thought you didn’t have a clue, a mark of careful editing. Indeed, Jennifer Lame has surely earned an easy Oscar nomination for her crisp editing. Not every scene is relevant to the creation of the atomic bomb, but they are all pertinent to Oppenheimer himself, and every second is engaging and considered.

Cillian Murphy and Emily Blunt (Image: Universal Pictures)

The score is by Ludwig Göransson, who also wrote the music for Nolan’s last film, Tenet. While Göransson’s work is less melodically iconic than Hans Zimmer’s various masterpieces, the ominous descending tones are worthy of a Nolan film and play an essential role in making a potentially mundane plot thoroughly gripping. 

One of the most common criticisms of Nolan’s films is the enormity of their sound design, which has occasionally been overly ambitious. At times, the score of his cosmic epic Interstellar was a wall of sound, which even many who loved the film found overbearing. The muffled audio of Bane, the masked villain in The Dark Knight Rises, meant that some of the best lines in the movie were difficult to hear. In Tenet, Nolan tried to get funky with the sound mix and rendered the dialogue of his $200-million film practically unintelligible.

Evidently, Nolan is sick of these critiques, because the sound design is immaculate. The dialogue is crisp and clear, balanced against the score more conservatively than in his previous films, which is not to say that there aren’t some immensely bombastic moments, but they’re strategically placed. The climactic scene, one that will burn brightly into your cerebellum as if you had witnessed it in real life, is rapturously, deafeningly silent. 

It goes without saying that the cinematography is as good as it gets. Nolan’s cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema, shot using some of the highest-resolution film cameras that exist – a combination of Imax 65mm and Panavision 65mm. Nolan has orchestrated some pretty spectacular stunts in the interest of avoiding CGI in previous films – with his budget, vision and purism, it would scarcely have been surprising if he’d detonated an actual atomic bomb in New Mexico. To be clear, he did not. But the immense explosions are real.

Explosive chain reactions

Nolan leaves no room for speculation about his personal view of Oppenheimer’s legacy, utilising the impetus and cultural reverence of Albert Einstein, a peripheral character in this saga, to end on an existential mic drop that will linger hauntingly in your mind like radioactive fallout. 

The film delivers on themes like “nobody wins in war”, and “the unstoppable avalanche of progress”; things you may already feel, but it’s amazing what visionary directing and some Hollywood magic can do to incept sentiment. Just about every moment of this three-hour epic is poised to move you. It could be a few seconds depicting a hallucination of a nuclear apocalypse, or a well-delivered string of words with just the right composition to set off an unstoppably explosive chain reaction in your brain. DM

Oppenheimer is available in cinemas

You can contact We’re Watching via [email protected]


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • bigbad jon says:

    Glorifying the b*stards that brought us atomic weapons.
    Only in Hollywood..

  • peadarh says:

    Excellent review, thank you. I watched a 30mn lecture from the University of Birmingham on the moral and philosophical angles on the Trolley Problem and I found it fascinating. Good to have in advance of watching the movie. As a Peaky Blinders recovering fanatic, cant wait to see Cillian in this.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.