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.

Inspired by the title of Bird and Sherwin’s biography, Nolan opens the film with an analogy of Oppenheimer to the mythological figure of Prometheus, who was punished by the gods for giving fire to man. But the director’s insightful, evocative film clearly demonstrates that with Oppenheimer’s invention, the punishment has been, and will continue to be, shared by all humankind.

Mark Fields
Mark Fields has reviewed movies for Out & About since October 2008. In addition, he has written O&A profiles of documentarian Harry Shearer and actress Aubrey Plaza. Over the years, Mark also has written on film for several publications in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and his home state of Indiana, where he also served as on-air movie critic for Indianapolis’s public radio station. Mark was an adjunct instructor of film history at Rowan University from 1998 to 2018. A career arts administrator, he retired in fall 2021 after 16 years as an executive at Wilmington’s Grand Opera House. Mark now leads bike tours part-time and is working on a screenplay. He lives in Trolley Square with his partner Wendy. Mark spent the fastest 22 minutes of his life as an unsuccessful contestant on Jeopardy…sadly, there were no movie questions.