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As J. Robert Oppenheimer in the film Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy wears goggles and stares through a porthole at an explosion casting an intensely bright light on his face Image: Universal Pictures

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Oppenheimer is Christopher Nolan at his most complex, powerful, and human

His three-hour historical epic dives into yet another scary universal mystery: people

Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

Christopher Nolan loves to make movies about the vast forces and abstract concepts that shape our understanding of the world: time, gravity, perception. Even when he turns his gaze inward on the human mind, in films like the psychologically scrambled Memento or the dream-state thriller Inception, his explorations of the metaphysical realm have strict, architectural designs that tend to trap and dwarf the characters within them — like figures on one of Inception’s Escher staircases.

He’s often accused of coldness, I think unfairly. This is a director who takes pains to find a relatable, emotional, sometimes even sentimental way into all that awestruck bigness. But those emotional hooks often feel more like the on-ramp for his stories than the destination. In Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey journeys to the center of a black hole to find that the secret of the universe is love — but is it really, or is it the implacable gravity, capable of bending time itself, that sucks him in? In Nolanworld, we humans can attempt to find meaning in the forces of the universe, or to bend them to our will, but they ultimately rule us. The bigness wins.

Until Oppenheimer. The paradox of this film — a three-hour historical epic about the theoretical physicist who unleashed the terrible forces of the quantum realm and became the “father of the atomic bomb” — is that it’s a lot less interested in science and mechanics than most of Nolan’s previous movies, and a lot more interested in people. It’s still vast in scope and meticulous in design. But this is the film in which Nolan ponders the scary proposition that the most powerful force in the universe might be us.

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer looks troubled, hands on hips, before a cheering audience waving small American flags, in the film Oppenheimer Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

The film has a different texture and tempo than Nolan’s previous work, likely because he’s working from an extremely rich source text: American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s acclaimed biography of the scientist who led America’s development of atomic weapons during World War II. There’s an enormous amount of material for Nolan to unpack: pivotal scientific concepts, political and military machinations, huge moral questions, and the not-so-small matter of one man’s complex life.

As a screenwriter, Nolan rises to this intimidating task, and the work of adaptation inspires some of his best writing to date. Broadly, Oppenheimer’s running time is divided into three clear acts. The first is a whirlwind biography of the mercurial physicist, as played by Cillian Murphy. The second is a gripping science procedural following the construction and first test of the A-bomb at the Manhattan Project’s remote facility in New Mexico. And the third, woven throughout the first two, is a political and legal thriller about an attempt to dismantle Oppenheimer’s reputation and legacy in the postwar years.

It wouldn’t be like Nolan to tell this story straight; he establishes multiple time frames from the start. Ostensibly, there are two tracks: a full-color chronology of Oppenheimer’s life, and a black-and-white framing device featuring Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), a nuclear-power broker whose relationship with Oppenheimer comes under scrutiny as Strauss seeks a U.S. cabinet post in Washington in the 1950s. Even this isn’t enough intricacy for Nolan, who regularly blurs the lines, flitting between multiple narrative layers, film stocks, and screen ratios as he tries to organize the torrent of information. It’s a testament to his structural fluency that all of this isn’t more confusing — and to his storytelling that it all works in service of the story, rather than drawing attention to its own tricksy ingenuity, as his scripts sometimes do.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, in hat, hands on hips, stands with his back to the camera and considers the tower at the atomic bomb test site before a huge, cloudy desert sky in the film Oppenheimer Image: Universal Pictures

More remarkable is the extent to which the characters and the mess of their lives force their way to the surface through Nolan’s grand design. Nolan has a habit of overexplaining everything — if Dunkirk is still his best movie, it’s because it’s the only one where he lets his awesome imagery do the talking. Oppenheimer is a very talky movie, with more than its fair share of scenes where people hold forth while pointing at equations on blackboards. But there’s simply too much complexity here to rely on imagery or sit with any particular moment for long, which forces Nolan to keep moving. Between the cracks, a very human strain of warmth, anxiety, and even wit finds its way out. (If you like a good physicist joke or two, you’re in for a treat.)

Credit to the cast for finding and emphasizing that humanity — particularly Murphy, who is hypnotic in the extremely challenging role of a charismatic, aloof egotist whose hunger for mastery carries him to a moral breaking point he dare not express. His gaunt, sculptural face fills the frame for much of the movie, those translucent, icy eyes staring through reality and out the other side. Oppenheimer sees everything, but also fails to see what’s right in front of him.

Among the vast, starry cast, Downey is a revelation in a subtle, elusive, but pivotal character part. Matt Damon, peppery of hair and sensible of mustache, helps ground the movie as Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves, Oppenheimer’s pragmatic military boss. Benny Safdie adds a striking note of sweaty unease as Edward Teller, a younger physicist on the project who went on to father the even more destructive hydrogen bomb. Gary Oldman has a startling, chilling cameo as President Harry Truman. And Tom Conti makes for an avuncular Albert Einstein, although Nolan’s script reduces the great thinker to a rather basic, symbolic role: the angel on Oppenheimer’s shoulder, or perhaps a one-man Greek chorus, shaking his head at the folly of man.

Tom Conti as Albert Einstein and Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer have a chat by a lake in the film Oppenheimer Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

The women, predictably for Nolan, fare less well. Florence Pugh labors through some awfully embarrassing conceptual sex scenes and an inevitable fridging as Oppenheimer’s lover Jean Tatlock, who was central to the physicist’s arm’s-length involvement with the Communist Party in the prewar years, which would eventually be used against him. And Emily Blunt, as Kitty Oppenheimer, has too much fire and resolve to be playing a Great Man’s miserable, alcoholic wife — though Nolan at least has the good grace to hand her a late peach of a scene featuring some of the best dialogue he’s ever written, which she rips through with relish.

For all his intellectualism, Nolan is also a broad-brush populist, and as ever, the clash of these instincts leads to some gauche, goofy moments, like the early scenes of Oppenheimer studiously reading T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and pondering a Picasso. Sometimes Nolan seems insecure working outside of his usual thriller mode. Ludwig Göransson’s insistent, nervy score is overused throughout, harrying the dizzying montage of Oppenheimer’s life into an almost comical blur when it would be better to let the drama breathe.

But once the film reaches the secret Los Alamos Laboratory, where the bomb was developed and tested, Nolan and his team are in their element. Hoyte van Hoytema’s majestic photography drinks in the pitiless desert as the stage is set for the bomb test: a wartime triumph and a terrible human tragedy. There may never have been a more consequential explosion, and while Nolan perhaps assembles the set-piece and films the blast with a touch too much excitement, he makes up for that in what follows, emphasizing the disorienting, dehumanizing haste with which the atomic bombs were subsequently dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nolan wisely averts the camera’s gaze from that atrocity, staging it instead as a horrifying, metaphorical hallucination, in which Oppenheimer’s inner world turns to ash.

In its final stretch, Oppenheimer uses the political campaign to discredit the physicist and unpick his legacy as a way to get under the skin of a man whose stance on his awful creation remained contradictory and enigmatic. After the overpowering bomb sequences, that’s a surprisingly subtle and complex tack for Nolan to take, but it works because the story is driven by the historical record and the characters, rather than by dogma, with the appalling moral consequences emerging naturally from the details. Nolan is not one to let any member of the audience miss his point, and the film’s final scene does ram it home. But first, he builds out the web of ambition, compromise, dreams, politics, jealousy, and inspiration — in a word, humanity — that unleashed the forces he stands in awe of. In Oppenheimer, man is the most dreadful machine of all.

Oppenheimer debuts in theaters on July 21.

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