Oppenheimer (Review) – a narratively flawed spectacle and technical marvel

Oppenheimer is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

It’s not hard to see why Christopher Nolan, or indeed any filmmaker, might relate to J. Robert Oppenheimer. All movies start life as a theory – a dream, conversation, or idea scribbled down on a cocktail napkin. They can only become tangible through months and years of sophisticated technical labour and intense collaboration. The ultimate outcome of all this work is impossible to know until its creators relinquish control and let it loose upon the world. This is the journey that Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy, takes in this eponymous biopic. We follow him as he brings the nascent academic field of quantum physics from Europe to America, leading the Manhattan Project in a race to build the atomic bomb while living with the far-reaching consequences of his success.

Far from following a conventional biographical path, Oppenheimer sees Nolan deploying his usual non-linear approach to storytelling, liberally hopping back and forth between the Manhattan Project and the events surrounding the 1959 confirmation hearing of Admiral Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.) who is hoping to make it through the hearing and ascend to a position in President Eisenhower’s cabinet. These two timelines are intercut with split-second flashes of memory and abstract visualisations of nuclear reactions. This approach is something of a double-edged sword. We feel as though we are stepping into Oppenheimer’s perspective, where the synapses of his undeniably brilliant mind are igniting and firing off in multiple directions. On the other hand, at times, the editing is so frenetic that it leaves you with the sensation that you’re watching a trailer that never settles into the flow of an actual movie.

Nolan’s films trade on their technical prowess, Oppenheimer more so than others, given that so much of the marketing has been focused on getting audiences to see it on as large a screen as possible. In the past, this has often come at the expense of character development. At his worst, this results in a movie like Tenet, where all the major players feel entirely void of depth despite the actors in question proving themselves capable of delivering layered performances in other projects.

Cillian Murphy is J. Robert Oppenheimer in OPPENHEIMER, written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan.

This is not the case in Oppenheimer, at least not in its entirety, as the technical flourishes work with Murphy’s performance to convey the weight behind the character’s emotions and choices. This can have an almost hallucinatory effect in the film’s most emotionally intense moments. At the other end of the spectrum, scenes from Strauss’s perspective are shown in black-and-white, symbolising his absolute but unimaginative view of the world compared to Oppenheimer’s more subjective point of view. Not relying on much more than appropriately atmospheric lighting, they give Robert Downey, Jr. ample time and space to remind audiences accustomed to seeing him in the Iron Man suit what he’s capable of as an actor. He and Murphy are surrounded by various supporting players who make their limited screen time count. Special mention goes to Tom Conti in one of the more pivotal of these minor roles as Albert Einstein, who counsels Oppenheimer on the burden he’s taken on with an unspoken but profound sense of melancholy.

Unfortunately, the wealth of material available for the ensemble to work with is not evenly spread. Playing a female character in a Christopher Nolan film is a pretty thankless task. Women’s contributions to the Manhattan Project are briefly acknowledged – Olivia Thirlby has a handful of lines as plutonium researcher Lilli Hornig – but is never spotlighted in the same way as her male counterparts. Similarly, Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh don’t have much to work with as Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty and his occasional mistress, Jean Tatlock. Jean is the stereotypical sexually adventurous but mentally unstable girlfriend. At the same time, Kitty spends most of her marriage nursing a gin and a vague sense of resentment.

Oppenheimer is undeniably a technical marvel, a spectacle on such a massive scale that more than justifies the effort of seeing it in a cinema. But being so deliberately immense, the problems common to its director’s other projects are also scaled up. In the long run, it will probably be the greater beneficiary of the Barbenheimer phenomenon. For all the hype, the reactions of the 800 or so people in my audience were relatively subdued. I even overheard one viewer admitting he fell asleep after the second hour. Without the Barbie boost, Oppenheimer could still have been a success. But having seen it, I don’t think it could have been a significant cultural moment alone.


  • Oppenheimer | United States | 2023


Oppenheimer is undeniably a technical marvel, a spectacle on such a massive scale that more than justifies the effort of seeing it in a cinema. But being so deliberately immense, the problems common to its director’s other projects are also scaled up.

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