by John Larkin
A close filmmaker friend of mine wrote an Oppenheimer screenplay about three years ago. Fascinated with the manhattan project, and even more so - the psychological toll the creation and eventual dropping of the bomb took on Oppenheimer - he spent years reading every book imaginable on the subject to absorb as much as he possibly could before embarking on the writing of the script. It was only weeks after he finished the first draft that news broke - Christopher Nolan's next project would be on Robert J. Oppenheimer and the Manhattan project. My friend was inconsolable for weeks. Oppenheimer had fascinated him since grade school days when he watched a documentary on the man and his creation. His screenplay focused heavily on the emotional trauma Oppenheimer dealt with in the aftermath of the bombings, more so than the focus to create the bomb in the race to beat the nazi's. Every writer/director has that special thing that draws them in and propels the interest in crafting a film version of someone's story.
Nolan has stated repeatedly in interviews that what really interested him to tell Oppenheimer's story was the moment right before the first test of the bomb occurred where it couldn't be ruled out that there was a small possibility that when detonating the bomb it could set off a chain reaction that would ignite the atmosphere and destroy the entire world. Yet, they still pushed it! Nolan's desire to "be in that room" through the eyes of Oppenheimer was his ultimate inspiration.
In following that perspective, Nolan has crafted a richly detailed, furiously paced, edge of your seat cinematic experience for the ages. At the heart of Oppenheimer's thrilling narrative is Cillian Murphy, portraying the famed physicist with unnerving gusto - complete with piericng blue eyes and a worn chiseled complexion that is simply mesmerizing. It's one of the greatest screen performances ever. It's essential to have Cillian as the 'heart anchor' of the film as it jumps between time periods at such a frenetic pace, one can easily lose themselves amongst the chaos of it all. Nolan wrote the screenplay in the first person style from Oppie's perspective. It took most of the cast some mental work to adjust to reading it initially. The filmic results of the unique writing experiment are extremely impactful.
Murphy is surrounded by one of the heaviest supporting casts ever assembled with Robert Downey Jr. as the standout playing Lewis Strauss. Strauss was Oppenheimer's vindictive advisory who lead the effort to tarnish Oppie's name and reputation in the wake of his mammoth popularity after the success of the Manhattan Project. Strauss's scenes play out in black and white on an IMAX film stock that was invented solely for use in this film. Whether there will be another film project that will benefit from this newly invented IMAX Black and White film again will be interesting to see.
The film isn't perfect. The last 40 minutes drags on and could have been tightened considerably before arriving at the ending line, which really hits home. In addition I found the IMAX projection to be jarring, constantly switching between true 70MM IMAX and anamorphic widescreen. For the all the hype about the 70MM IMAX experience I was surprised at how much wasn't actually true 70MM IMAX. Let that not detract from Hoyte Van Hoytema's astounding cinematography. I can't think of the last time a film has appeared so visually bold and rich. The colors in particular have a density and realism that's unparalleled to digital and sucks you into the experience in a profound way. The closeups of Cillian Murphy throughout the entire film are burned into my memory banks for all time. There is still no landscape like the face of a great actor acting.
Nolan is no stranger to challenging narratives intertwined with inaccessible science but the film moves with such force and beauty that he doesn't give you much time to think, just feel. And as far as visceral moviegoing experiences go, it's a deeply satisfying one and easily one of the best films of the year.