‘Oppenheimer’ Review: A Man for Our Time (2024)

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Critic’s Pick

Christopher Nolan’s complex, vivid portrait of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” is a brilliant achievement in formal and conceptual terms.

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‘Oppenheimer’ Review: A Man for Our Time (1)

By Manohla Dargis

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Oppenheimer
NYT Critic's Pick
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Biography, Drama, History
R
3 hours

“Oppenheimer,” Christopher Nolan’s staggering film about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man known as “the father of the atomic bomb,” condenses a titanic shift in consciousness into three haunted hours. A drama about genius, hubris and error, both individual and collective, it brilliantly charts the turbulent life of the American theoretical physicist who helped research and develop the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II — cataclysms that helped usher in our human-dominated age.

The movie is based on “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” the authoritative 2005 biography by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Written and directed by Nolan, the film borrows liberally from the book as it surveys Oppenheimer’s life, including his role in the Manhattan Engineer District, better known as the Manhattan Project. He served as director of a clandestine weapons lab built in a near-desolate stretch of Los Alamos, in New Mexico, where he and many other of the era’s most dazzling scientific minds puzzled through how to harness nuclear reactions for the weapons that killed tens of thousands instantly, ending the war in the Pacific.

The atomic bomb and what it wrought define Oppenheimer’s legacy and also shape this film. Nolan goes deep and long on the building of the bomb, a fascinating and appalling process, but he doesn’t restage the attacks; there are no documentary images of the dead or panoramas of cities in ashes, decisions that read as his ethical absolutes. The horror of the bombings, the magnitude of the suffering they caused and the arms race that followed suffuse the film. “Oppenheimer” is a great achievement in formal and conceptual terms, and fully absorbing, but Nolan’s filmmaking is, crucially, in service to the history that it relates.

The story tracks Oppenheimer — played with feverish intensity by Cillian Murphy — across decades, starting in the 1920s with him as a young adult and continuing until his hair grays. The film touches on personal and professional milestones, including his work on the bomb, the controversies that dogged him, the anti-Communist attacks that nearly ruined him, as well as the friendships and romances that helped sustain yet also troubled him. He has an affair with a political firebrand named Jean Tatlock (a vibrant Florence Pugh), and later weds a seductive boozer, Kitty Harrison (Emily Blunt, in a slow-building turn), who accompanies him to Los Alamos, where she gives birth to their second child.

It’s a dense, event-filled story that Nolan — who’s long embraced the plasticity of the film medium — has given a complex structure, which he parcels into revealing sections. Most are in lush color; others in high-contrast black and white. These sections are arranged in strands that wind together for a shape that brings to mind the double helix of DNA. To signal his conceit, he stamps the film with the words “fission” (a splitting into parts) and “fusion” (a merging of elements); Nolan being Nolan, he further complicates the film by recurrently kinking up the overarching chronology — it is a lot.

It also isn’t a story that builds gradually; rather, Nolan abruptly tosses you into the whirl of Oppenheimer’s life with vivid scenes of him during different periods. In rapid succession the watchful older Oppie (as his intimates call him) and his younger counterpart flicker onscreen before the story briefly lands in the 1920s, where he’s an anguished student tormented by fiery, apocalyptic visions. He suffers; he also reads T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” drops a needle on Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and stands before a Picasso painting, defining works of an age in which physics folded space and time into space-time.

This fast pace and narrative fragmentation continue as Nolan fills in this Cubistic portrait, crosses and recrosses continents and ushers in armies of characters, including Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), a physicist who played a role in the Manhattan Project. Nolan has loaded the movie with familiar faces — Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Gary Oldman — some distracting. It took me a while to accept the director Benny Safdie as Edward Teller, the theoretical physicist known as the “father of the hydrogen bomb,” and I still don’t know why Rami Malek shows up in a minor part other than he’s yet another known commodity.

As Oppenheimer comes into focus so does the world. In 1920s Germany, he learns quantum physics; the next decade he’s at Berkeley teaching, bouncing off other young geniuses and building a center for the study of quantum physics. Nolan makes the era’s intellectual excitement palpable — Einstein published his theory of general relativity in 1915 — and, as you would expect, there’s a great deal of scientific debate and chalkboards filled with mystifying calculations, most of which Nolan translates fairly comprehensibly. One of the film’s pleasures is experiencing by proxy the kinetic excitement of intellectual discourse.

It’s at Berkeley that the trajectory of Oppenheimer’s life dramatically shifts, after news breaks that Germany has invaded Poland. By that point, he has become friends with Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), a physicist who invented a particle accelerator, the cyclotron, and who plays an instrumental role in the Manhattan Project. It’s also at Berkeley that Oppenheimer meets the project’s military head, Leslie Groves (a predictably good Damon), who makes him Los Alamos’s director, despite the leftist causes he supported — among them, the fight against fascism during the Spanish Civil War — and some of his associations, including with Communist Party members like his brother, Frank (Dylan Arnold).

Nolan is one of the few contemporary filmmakers operating at this ambitious scale, both thematically and technically. Working with his superb cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, Nolan has shot in 65-millimeter film (which is projected in 70-millimeter), a format that he’s used before to create a sense of cinematic monumentality. The results can be immersive, though at times clobbering, particularly when the wow of his spectacle has proved more substantial and coherent than his storytelling. In “Oppenheimer,” though, as in “Dunkirk” (2017), he uses the format to convey the magnitude of a world-defining event; here, it also closes the distance between you and Oppenheimer, whose face becomes both vista and mirror.

The film’s virtuosity is evident in every frame, but this is virtuosity without self-aggrandizement. Big subjects can turn even well-intended filmmakers into show-offs, to the point that they upstage the history they seek to do justice to. Nolan avoids that trap by insistently putting Oppenheimer into a larger context, notably with the black-and-white portions. One section turns on a politically motivated security clearance hearing in 1954, a witch hunt that damaged his reputation; the second follows the 1959 confirmation for Lewis Strauss (a mesmerizing, near-unrecognizable Downey), a former chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission who was nominated for a cabinet position.

Nolan integrates these black-and-white sections with the color ones, using scenes from the hearing and the confirmation — Strauss’s role in the hearing and his relationship with Oppenheimer directly affected the confirmation’s outcome — to create a dialectical synthesis. One of the most effective examples of this approach illuminates how Oppenheimer and other Jewish project scientists, some of whom were refugees from Nazi Germany, saw their work in stark, existential terms. Yet Oppenheimer’s genius, his credentials, international reputation and wartime service to the United States government cannot save him from political gamesmanship, the vanity of petty men and the naked antisemitism of the Red scare.

These black-and-white sequences define the last third of “Oppenheimer.” They can seem overlong, and at times in this part of the film it feels as if Nolan is becoming too swept up in the trials that America’s most famous physicist experienced. Instead, it is here that the film’s complexities and all its many fragments finally converge as Nolan puts the finishing touches on his portrait of a man who contributed to an age of transformational scientific discovery, who personified the intersection of science and politics, including in his role as a Communist boogeyman, who was transformed by his role in the creation of weapons of mass destruction and soon after raised the alarm about the dangers of nuclear war.

François Truffaut once wrote that “war films, even pacifist, even the best, willingly or not, glorify war and render it in some way attractive.” This, I think, gets at why Nolan refuses to show the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, world-defining events that eventually killed an estimated 100,000 to upward of 200,000 souls. You do, though, see Oppenheimer watch the first test bomb and, critically, you also hear the famous words that he said crossed his mind as the mushroom cloud rose: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” As Nolan reminds you, the world quickly moved on from the horrors of the war to embrace the bomb. Now we, too, have become death, the destroyers of worlds.

Oppenheimer
Rated R for disturbing images, and adult language and behavior. Running time: 3 hours. In theaters.

Audio produced by Kate Winslett.

A correction was made on

July 19, 2023

:

An earlier version of this article misidentified J. Robert Oppenheimer as director of the Manhattan Project. He was director of its clandestine weapons laboratory, Los Alamos.

How we handle corrections

Manohla Dargis is the chief film critic of The Times, which she joined in 2004. She has an M.A. in cinema studies from New York University, and her work has been anthologized in several books. More about Manohla Dargis

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‘Oppenheimer’ Review: A Man for Our Time (2024)

FAQs

What was Oppenheimer's famous quote? ›

Often, it's juxtaposed against images that are just slightly less tremendous than a divine entity with endless mouths and eyes. But even in that context, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” has an epic, ponderous beauty. No wonder it's stood the test of time, and then some.

What was Oppenheimer quoting? ›

The line of scripture used in the scene is one that is famously associated with Robert Oppenheimer: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." He is believed to have quoted it while watching the atom bomb he created detonate in a test.

How did Oppenheimer feel about the atomic bomb? ›

Oppenheimer thought that this huge hydrogen weapon, with its potential for megatons and megatons of yield, was a travesty, as there was no legitimate military target for such a weapon. It was basically and purely a weapon of mass destruction.

Is Oppenheimer Based on a true story? ›

Based on the life of American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the eponymous film explores his invention of the atomic bomb – and the implications of creating such a deadly weapon.

What is the most famous quote ever said? ›

10 most famous quotes of all time
  • "I have a dream." ...
  • "The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall." - ...
  • "The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing." - ...
  • "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." -
May 20, 2022

What was Oppenheimer's speech about? ›

Rather than apologize, Oppenheimer justified pursuit of an atomic bomb as inevitable, stressing that scientists must expand man's understanding and control of nature. He also argued that new approaches were needed to govern atomic energy. Subjects: Manhattan Project History.

Why was Oppenheimer so important? ›

A faculty member at UC Berkeley, Oppenheimer is commonly attributed with helping bring quantum mechanics to America. In 1942, he was recruited to direct the laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, which became the most famous nuclear development site to come out of WWII.

What did Oppenheimer say to Truman? ›

The first time he met Truman, after the atomic bombings of Japan, out of frustration and passion Oppenheimer blurted out, “There is blood on my hands.”

What was Oppenheimer trying to do? ›

He is often known as the “father of the atomic bomb.” By the time the Manhattan Project was launched in the fall of 1942, Oppenheimer was already considered an exceptional theoretical physicist and had become deeply involved in exploring the possibility of an atomic bomb.

What did Oppenheimer believe? ›

Oppenheimer saw communism as the best defense against the rise of fascism in Europe, which, being of Jewish heritage, was personal for him.

Who regretted the atomic bomb? ›

Oppenheimer, whose crippling remorse had him smoking constantly after the Nagasaki bombing, delivered a letter to Secretary of War Henry Stimson on Aug. 17, 1945, urging that nuclear weapons be banned. Oppenheimer resigned as director of the Los Alamos Laboratory after the war ended.

How did Oppenheimer react to Hiroshima? ›

Oppenheimer was said to have been distraught that the bomb was used twice, believing the second bomb was unnecessary. A few days later, he secured a meeting with President Truman where he expressed his revulsion at Nagasaki, telling the President that he felt there was “blood on [his] hands”.

Why did the FBI follow Oppenheimer? ›

In his role as a political advisor, Oppenheimer had made numerous enemies. The FBI-which had been following his activities since before the war, when he showed Communist sympathies as a radical professor-were willing to furnish Oppenheimer's political enemies with incriminating evidence about Communist ties.

Was Oppenheimer a socialist? ›

Robert Oppenheimer's long time membership in the Communist Party of the United States was made secret in 1942 because he was being used as a Soviet intelligence asset by the Communist Underground to help obtain atomic secrets.

Did Oppenheimer know Einstein? ›

That said, the biographers indicate Einstein and Oppenheimer did still enjoy each others' company. They relay a charming anecdote about the two that didn't make it into Oppenheimer but would've been a gas to see.

What was the famous quote from the inventor of the atomic bomb? ›

The Story of Oppenheimer's Infamous Quote. The line, from the Hindu sacred text the Bhagavad Gita, has come to define Robert Oppenheimer, but its meaning is more complex than many realize.

What did Oppenheimer say after Hiroshima and Nagasaki? ›

Reportedly, he told President Harry Truman “[he felt he had] blood on [his] hands” when meeting him in October 1945 after the introduction of such a threat into the world and the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What was the famous quote from the Manhattan Project? ›

J. Robert Oppenheimer was the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, the USA's World War II program to develop the first nuclear weapons.

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