The Pitch: One of the most significant events of the 20th century — arguably one of the most significant events in human history — was America dropping two nuclear bombs on two cities in Japan, which decisively ended World War II. While many men and women helped to create said bombs, it’s Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) who history declared to be “the father of the atomic bomb.” And thus it’s his story which writer/director Christopher Nolan has chosen to tell, with the support of a $100 million budget and what feels like every white male actor working today.
Not Really a Biopic: As a viewing experience, Oppenheimer is a whole lot of movie, a man’s life given the epic treatment — because he did do truly epic things, things that elevate his life story beyond the limitations of genre. And thus, the film proves exceptional at drawing the audience into the experience, when it lets the power of its images do the talking. Its best moments stand out as some of the most original and exciting filmmaking of the year, highs that do a lot to counterbalance the sequences which dive back into bureaucracy and comparatively petty rivalries.
While the name of the main dude is also the title of the film, and the dude in question is a real person, Oppenheimer works hard to escape the traps of the biographical drama, largely successfully. The opening minutes do include a point that can best be described as “J. Robert Oppenheimer has to think about his entire life before he testifies.” However, when the film digs into the particulars of creating not just the atom bomb, but the entire infrastructure required to create said bomb, it’s packed with gripping details.
And when the countdown begins for the one true explosion we see on screen, it’s a simply masterful piece of filmmaking, drawing the audience into a real-time appreciation of what exactly it meant for those men and women to witness this level of history. Thanks to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, it’s like watching the birth of a sun on planet Earth, an awe-inspiring sight, and the second it seems like it’s over, it’s followed by what sounds like the roar of creation, the beginning of the universe — except, of course, it’s creation’s opposite.
Hundreds of filmmakers have depicted explosions before. Hell, before the movies had even figured out how sound worked, people were blowing stuff up on camera. What Nolan achieves here is on a whole other level, technical brilliance in the moment, but all the more powerful because the build up to that moment is so deliberate, the momentum growing and growing with a pace that becomes haunting… it’s why epics of this length need to be this long, so that the payoff is that much sweeter.
And then, it’s time for another hour of conference rooms!