Does “Oppenheimer” live up to expectations?
Top 5 of Oppenheimer
5. Nolan’s Script
While the film’s story is undoubtedly indebted to its real-life source material and Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s novel, American Prometheus, Nolan has sole writing credit on the script, and it shows in fascinating ways.
Like any great storyteller, Nolan’s present-tense passions burrow themselves into the very fabric of this past-tense story, and the result is incandescent. It’s a passionately told story executed with a genuinely surprising amount of jovial energy and momentum from the outset. With an almost symphonic sense of storytelling, planting seeds for motifs and themes early on and allowing them to blossom before the audience’s very eyes, Nolan weaves an incredibly intricate tapestry of interweaving characters and motivations in an infallibly compelling fashion.
The trademark time-twisting narrative structure (which Nolan has always been infatuated with) is there and offers Nolan some incredibly interesting opportunities to explore multiple viewpoints and contextualize Oppenheimer as both a man and a myth in a metatextual sense, but Nolan leans heavily into a much more straightforward conventional narrative structure for the bulk of Oppenheimer’s runtime and does so with wonderful efficiency.
4. The Ensemble
To name all of the actors who are actually in Oppenheimer would constitute an additional few hundred words of its own, but suffice it to say that quite literally every performer who appears in the film does incredible work.
So many marquee-level stars in their own right show up as bit-players throughout the film, servicing the larger story and film in a surprisingly subdued form that it’s kind of unbelievable. For instance, Academy Award-winner Rami Malek is in Oppenheimer for maybe ten minutes.
It’s an embarrassment of riches, but special lip service must be paid to the likes of Florence Pugh, Matt Damon, Josh Hartnett, Alden Ehrenreich, Emily Blunt, Benny Safdie, Josh Peck, and Robert Downey Jr. for each showing up and knocking their respective scenes, no matter how long they are, entirely out of the park.
3. Jennifer Lame’s Editing
The editing of Oppenheimer is exacting, innovative, and filled with such thought-provoking and emotionally-motivated craftsmanship that it is frequently awe-inspiring.
Editor Jennifer Lame began working with Nolan on Tenet, but has also been the steady hand and inventive mind behind editing such acclaimed films as Hereditary and Marriage Story. Here, Lame brings verve and momentum to Nolan’s work while never making it feel rushed or lacking in resonance. Every story beat feels truly earned and shown to us rather than told to us, a monumental accomplishment considering just how much ground the film has to cover throughout its runtime.
Beyond that, Lame also brings elements of avant-garde and associative editing into the film to spectacular results. In taking full advantage of Nolan’s narrative structure, Lame’s edit frequently allows elements of one time period to bleed into another, whether through visual motifs, sound design, or associative cutting alone. It’s genuinely phenomenal work.
2. Nolan and Hoyte van Hoytema’s Visuals
Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema has become one of modern cinema’s most exciting and innovative voices over the last few years.
From his work with Nolan on a masterpiece like Dunkirk to his collaboration with Jordan Peele on a masterpiece like Nope, no one is using the IMAX frame in such daring and bold ways as Hoytema. Oppenheimer is absolutely no exception.
Aided by Ruth De Jong’s immaculate production design, Nolan and Hoytema deliver an all-encompassing visual language that engulfs audiences. Alongside Nolan’s superb scripting, the exquisite performances from the ensemble, and Jennifer Lame’s stupendous editing, Nolan and Hoytema’s work turns Oppenheimer into a staggering and contemplative film that is destined to shake audiences to their core.
1. Cillian Murphy’s Performance
For all the brilliant craftsmanship on display here, all the incredible performances, and all the spectacular setpieces, so much of Oppenheimer comes down to Nolan putting the camera a few inches away from the titular character’s face and allowing Cillian Murphy’s expression to fill the entire IMAX frame.
Murphy’s performance is reserved and understated externally yet often fiercely complex internally. His gaunt face and bright eyes staring off into the distance carry so much weight, and Nolan and Hoytema’s visual choices continuously work to serve them in the most deliberate ways possible.
In fact, numerous times throughout my viewing of Oppenheimer, I personally found Murphy’s physicality incredibly reminiscent of latter-day Charlie Chaplin (think the final shot of City Lights or anything from Limelight), which speaks volumes about the miraculous nature of Murphy’s performance. Chaplin was famously able to convey so much without dialogue, and here, Murphy’s performance operates on numerous levels simultaneously: the spoken and the unspoken words, the theory and the execution. Similar to the work that populated J. Robert Oppenheimer’s career, it’s a performance driven by paradox, allowing Murphy to truly delve into the meat of the internal conflict within the character in startlingly effective ways.
Oppenheimer is a ludicrously well-crafted and deeply entrancing cinematic work. While prior works have seen Christopher Nolan, the writer, occasionally getting in the way of Christopher Nolan, the director, Oppenheimer manages to strike a great balance between the two sides of Nolan’s filmmaking.
At the end of The Dark Knight Rises, as Batman races to get a nuclear bomb out of Gotham, the ticking clock of the bomb counts down in real-time throughout the climax. In the editing and construction of the finale of his Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan prioritized a sense of realism to a near-fault, allowing this rule to dictate the execution of this final act more than any of the creative elements or craft. In Oppenheimer, during the film’s depiction of the Trinity nuclear test, the ticking clock eschews real-time, focusing instead on the subjective: the emotional and experiential elements of the sequence are prioritized over the strictly intellectual. And I think that’s fucking great.