The atom bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 reportedly killed up to 226,000 people. The war they ended killed up to 85 million. The weight of humanity was put on the scales 78 years ago and one man decided which way they tipped – a scientist whose work in theoretical physics held the power to end wars, to start them, and to change the whole course of history.
Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s Pulitzer-winning book, American Prometheus, is known as the definitive biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer – and it’s easy to see why director Christopher Nolan picked it up in the first place. Obsessively researched, dense with detail and immaculately structured, it’s the perfect subject for Nolan – and for what might be his best film so far.
Here he makes his biggest and smallest movie in one – something eclipsing the scale of Inception and the intimacy of The Prestige – a dense three-hour drama set in cramped rooms filled with men talking about particle physics and political depositions that feels more thrilling and explosive than any summer blockbuster.
If you’re not too hot on your nuclear fission, don’t worry. Complex theories are explained with fishbowls and marbles and dazzling visual effects, but Oppenheimer isn’t about science, it’s about a man. Painting a delicate character portrait on the largest canvas imaginable, Nolan casts Cillian Murphy as the flawed, brilliant doctor at the centre of his history – and then pushes pretty nearly everything else out of the way.
Cillian Murphy and Emily Blunt in ‘Oppenheimer’. CREDIT: Universal
Oppenheimer’s most famous words (“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”, taken directly from Hindu scripture) are repeated twice in the film, years apart. First in a flash of arrogance, then in horror, everything that happens in between is Oppenheimer’s own fall from grace, finding a haunting moral worminess for Murphy, and only Murphy, to live in.
For a film so long and so crammed with great performances, the laser focus of the script is astonishing. Emily Blunt, Matt Damon and Robert Downey Jr are all exceptional (as is Florence Pugh, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh and pretty much every other A-lister in Hollywood), but they’re all playing parts that Nolan deliberately places as far in the background as he can.
“You’re not just self-important, you’re actually important!” Damon’s General Groves (Oppenheimer’s boss) barks at the rail-thin protagonist, something his long-suffering wife (Blunt) could easily have yelled the other way around. Cocky, obsessive and often unlikeable, Oppenheimer is a complicated man, but Murphy brings him brilliantly to life; cold and contradictory in a film that roars with fire. Literally.
It might not have the flashiest action set-pieces of the summer, but some of the scenes in Oppenheimer are dazzling enough to be genuinely frightening. See it in IMAX, if you can, to really experience it – not just the wall-shaking violence of the explosions but also Nolan’s giant 70mm camera pushed right up into the film’s heart and soul in even the smallest of talky boardroom scenes.
Not just the definitive account of the man behind the atom bomb, Oppenheimer is a monumental achievement in grown-up filmmaking. For years, Nolan has been perfecting the art of the serious blockbuster – crafting smart, finely-tuned multiplex epics that demand attention; that can’t be watched anywhere other than in a cinema, uninterrupted, without distractions. But this, somehow, feels bigger.
- Director: Christopher Nolan
- Starring: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon
- Release date: July 21 (in cinemas)