By Mark Fields
Director-writer Christopher Nolan has a reputation for making movies that mess with your mind: Tenet, Inception, Memento, and my personal favorite The Prestige. Even his vaunted Batman trilogy — Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises — devoted as much energy to mental mind games as it did to superhero theatrics.
Nolan’s much-anticipated biographical film about the father of the nuclear bomb, Oppenheimer (as in J. Robert Oppenheimer), is also a mind f#$k for the viewer, but in an entirely different, more profound way. It asks us to devote three hours of our lives to pondering the haunted genius who lead the creation of the nuclear age and raised the specter of global annihilation, deliberate or accidental. Nolan’s film is hypnotic, powerful, and deeply, deeply disturbing.
The screenplay – which Nolan co-wrote with Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin based on the latter two’s 2006 biography entitled American Prometheus — is dense and intentionally overpowering for the audience. We are toggled between Oppenheimer’s early years as a theoretician, the period of the Manhattan Project’s secret work in the New Mexican desert, and several governmental hearings that occurred in its aftermath, when the American political machine turned on Oppenheimer despite his success in ending World War II. We are bombarded with a parade of famous personages — Einstein, Niels Bohr, Edward Teller, Harry Truman (nearly all portrayed by familiar actors from the director’s cinematic acting troupe — and Nolan interchanges both color and black-and-white sequences to tell his story.
Several supporting members of Nolan’s stellar cast, including Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, and Jason Clarke do exceptional work, but the film absolutely belongs to Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer. Murphy embodies the conflicted nature of the film’s subject: brilliant, arrogant, driven, anguished. Nolan rightly keeps the focus of the film tightly on the intense actor.