★★★★★ - STUFF
- Not just Christopher Nolan's best, but one of this century's key movies -
Films have a lousy relationship with scientists.
Writers and directors too often try to compress a life dedicated to research and experiment into the stifling confines of a blueprint more suited to a sport's movie – the early life, the setbacks and the eventual triumph – and finish up with a film that manages to over-simplify and demean its subject, even as it pretends to be celebrating their life.
And then there's Christopher Nolan, who can take a life as storied, complicated and thorny as J. Robert Oppenheimer's – the "father of the atomic bomb" – and still turn in one of the most engrossing films I've seen in a long time.
Nolan had two immense allies on his side from the beginning. Authors Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherman worked on their biography of Oppenheimer for 25 years, collating 50,000 pages of interviews and notes, which were woven into what is widely regarded as one of the finest biographies, of anyone, ever written. American Prometheus is a masterpiece – and everything Nolan needs to convey is in there.
Nolan strips American Prometheus back to key events that will translate to film and then stitches them together to explain a 15-year span during which Oppenheimer went from being a brilliant theoretician to the cover of Time magazine – and then a political and social pariah.
The marriages, affairs and betrayals are here. As is the moral torture of being responsible for a weapon that could end 100,000 lives in a second, but perhaps save a million if it meant there would not need to be an invasion before Japan surrendered. But with Japan already crumbling from within – and Germany having quit the war in Europe, was the use of the bomb still in any way justified?
Nolan's screenplay asks these questions early – and often – as the storytelling flies back and forth across a decade – and more. There is no one better than Nolan – maybe never has been – at weaving chronologically distinct strands of narrative together into a seamless present. His gift serves him well here, as Oppenheimer moves from student days at Cambridge to a 1954 US government security hearing that would tarnish his reputation for the rest of his life.
Nolan wheels some titanic figures of the 20th century on to the stage – Harry Truman, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and Edward Teller among them, but affectionately cuts everyone down to an approachable and human scale. At the centre of the film – and in very nearly every scene – Cillian Murphy brings clarity and focus to a man who very often could not explain his own quandaries even to himself.
Murphy is astonishing, of course. Nominations and awards will follow this film wherever it goes. And around Murphy, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Matt Damon and – especially – Robert Downey Jr. are all extraordinary. Maybe we've forgotten in the last decade or so just what a brilliant character actor Downey Jr. can be, given the right script and director. He turns in a piece of work here, as the nominal villain of the film, that should remind the world there's a lot more to Downey Jr. than a punchline delivered in front of a greenscreen.
The technical credits, from Nolan's favourite DOP Hoyte van Hoytema (Tenet, Interstellar) and composer Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther) are as grand as ever. This is an old-school spectacle that needs to be seen on the biggest screen in town with the speakers turned all the way up.
With a three-hour running time – and perhaps an hour of that devoted to hearings and courtroom debates – Oppenheimer might not the Friday-night-after-a-drink film you need. But, if you're prepared to invest your attention and listen to what is being said, you might just come out of Oppenheimer thinking you've seen, not just Nolan's best film, but one of the key films of the 21st century so far.
- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF
Oppenheimer is now playing at Light House Cinema!