Oppenheimer review: Cillian Murphy is stunning in explosive epic
Christopher Nolan's film is of epic length, but a fusion of intersecting narratives feeds into a dramatic climax.
Following the moderate success of futuristic action fantasy Tenet (2020), director Christopher Nolan explores tumultuous events from the past for his latest 70mm epic, namely the race against time to make a nuclear bomb before the Nazis.
Essentially, it’s a biopic of "the father of the atomic bomb", American scientist J Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), and charts his journey from acclaimed theoretical physicist in the 1930s to recruitment on the Manhattan Project and his appointment as director of the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico where his international community of scientists was tasked with creating a weapon to end the Second World War.
In his sixth appearance in a Nolan film, Murphy takes the lead role for the first time and is joined by an awesome array of talent, ranging from Emily Blunt (as wife Kitty) and Florence Pugh (as leftie lover Jean Tatlock) to Robert Downey Jr as ambitious government adviser Lewis Strauss (pronounced “straws”) and Matt Damon as Leslie Groves, Oppenheimer’s straight-talking military minder at Los Alamos. There are choice cameos, too, from the likes of Casey Affleck, Kenneth Branagh, Gary Oldman (as President Harry S Truman) and veteran British actor Tom Conti as Albert Einstein.
Admittedly, the three-hour running time and plethora of scenes with boffins in rooms trying to turn quantum physics into reality could be a challenge for audiences expecting more all-out action. However, the director leavens the verbiage and slow-burning story with sequences of atom-splitting, Kubrick-like magnificence, and seismically effective sound, not least during the tension-filled detonation of that first prototype device.
There is also a courtroom-thriller aspect here, too, as a 1958 Senate committee (shot in crisp black and white) involving Strauss’s appointment as Secretary of Commerce dovetails with a 1954 hearing into Oppenheimer’s alleged communist sympathies, a process meant to silence his postwar misgivings about the hydrogen bomb and nuclear proliferation. This latter storyline provides Blunt and Damon with their best bouts of thesping and includes a surprisingly surreal sequence, unusual for the director. Yes, the film is of epic length, but the fusion of these intersecting narratives feeds into a dramatically explosive climax.
And anchoring everything is Murphy’s stunning, award-worthy performance. Although sphinx-like in demeanour, the Peaky Blinders star still manages to convey (via those piercing blue eyes and gaunt, chiselled expression) the haunted internal struggle of a man who would describe himself as "the destroyer of worlds."
The Oppenheimer story has been dramatized before, notably in 1980 with the BBC’s BAFTA-winning TV series starring Sam Waterston, as well as 1989 movie Shadow Makers starring Paul Newman as Groves and Dwight Schultz as the physicist. But despite their merits, the combination of Nolan’s cinematic ambition, committed cast and mesmerising music by Ludwig Goransson (Black Panther, The Mandalorian) is hard to resist.
Read an exclusive interview with Oppenheimer's Cillian Murphy in this week's issue of Radio Times magazine – out now.