OPPENHEIMER is a Chilling, Brilliant Character Study that Lands Among Nolan's Best

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a stark and brilliant character dissection of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb


Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is an excellently crafted biopic that explores the complicated life of the titular J. Robert Oppenheimer, the mastermind behind the Manhattan Project. The movie is about more than just the bomb; it dives into Oppenheimer himself, showing his transformation from a well-intentioned scientist to a conflicted and hollowed-out Prometheus. Featuring an amazing cast, awe-inspiring sound design, and no shortage of Nolan’s signature practical effects, Oppenheimer is definitely a film worthy of critical acclaim.

Oppenheimer features a star-studded cast with Cillian Murphy at the helm. Murphy’s performance as Oppenheimer nails the intricacies of the real-life figure. Murphy’s Oppenheimer slowly turns into a slumped and harrowing figure as he realises the apocalyptic consequences of the proverbial nuclear genie being released from its bottle.

Worthy of equal praise was Robert Downey Jr. as Admiral Lewis Strauss, who was the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Without going into heavy spoilers, RDJ, despite Strauss’ limited screentime, simply owns every scene he appears in through a layered performance that slowly unravels as the movie reaches its climax, presenting Strauss as the foil to what Oppenheimer stood for. Strauss was the perfect role for RDJ, who nails the sly and manipulative aspects of Strauss as well as his private outbursts.

Among the numerous standout performances from an ensemble cast including Florence Pugh, Kenneth Branagh, Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, and many others, most notable was perhaps Emily Blunt, who played Kitty Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer’s stalwart wife. The script emphasizes the role Kitty plays in defending Oppenheimer as his security clearance was being revoked. I believe that Kitty’s testimony during Oppenheimer’s hearing is delivered perfectly by Blunt, showing the character’s simultaneous vulnerability and defiance.

While Nolan’s Tenet had almost incomprehensible dialogue because of poor sound mixing, Oppenheimer is a significant improvement. Oppenheimer’s sound mixing is still imperfect and leads to some easy-to-miss lines of dialogue, but its sound design in general does elevate the film. The two most important aspects that makes the movie’s sound design effective are Oppenheimer’s score and unique sound effects.

Oppenheimer’s score, by Ludwig Göransson, is powerful. It provides an atmosphere throughout the movie, showcasing the beauty of science through interactions such as that of Oppenheimer and Niels Bohr and the anxiety that slowly overcomes Oppenheimer towards the climax of the movie. The soundtrack did, at times, drown out the movie’s dialogue, and I felt that there were scenes that could have done without the score, but Göransson’s score was overall effective in immersing viewers into Oppenheimer’s triumphs and struggles.

What was probably the most beautiful part of Oppenheimer’s sound, though, was the Trinity test scene at the climax of the movie. The clicking noises and conversations portraying the anxiety of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project building up as the timer counted down, followed by a period of silence, with the score returning as the scientists admired the sight in front of them. Then, it felt like the speakers in the theatre I was in exploded as the sound reached the scientists, shocking both them and the audience. The scene was simply immersive, especially as I felt the impact of the shock from the theatre’s speakers. I managed to catch the movie in a theatre with Dolby Atmos surround sound and highly recommend readers to do the same.

Finally, Nolan’s use of practical effects was a big plus for the movie, providing a weight that computer-generated graphics tend not to. Intercutting certain scenes in the movie were visualisations of what the characters were talking about. The flashing lights and heavy sounds showed how the scientists themselves visualised the phenomena they discussed, presenting a unique view into the minds of the characters.

That being said, I think that the Trinity test scene showed the limitations of practical effects. Everything about that scene, from the acting to the dialogue to the frantic actions taken by the characters, was perfect. The explosion itself was still breathtaking, but I did not feel that the explosion matched the grandeur that the rest of the scene was building up to. Although, I still found the scene to be wildly enthralling and well done.

Overall, Oppenheimer is an entertaining and thoughtfully crafted movie that tells the story of one of history’s most complex figures. Each element of the movie works together to create a picture of Oppenheimer’s spectacular triumph and eventual downfall, ultimately conveying a warning of future catastrophe.

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