“Oppenheimer,” Christopher Nolan’s masterful portrait of the man known as the father of the atomic bomb, has been anticipated with some skepticism among filmgoers who wonder how Nolan’s penchant for Imax cameras and thundering sound designs would serve a story that, at its core, amounts to scenes of different groups of men arguing in different kinds of rooms (chalkboard with indecipherable physics equations optional).
It turns out that Nolan’s monumentalist aesthetic is perfectly suited for a story that otherwise could barely fit within a feature-length narrative: It’s too big, too consequential, its layers of hubris and history and swirling social impulses too unruly to be neatly contained. If “Oppenheimer” is a supersize movie, that’s because anything else would do a disservice to J. Robert Oppenheimer, the tragic figure at its core brought to fascinatingly paradoxical life by Cillian Murphy.
It’s easy to see why Nolan was attracted to Oppenheimer as a protagonist. Not only was he a man of seductively gnarly complications, but he moved through the 20th century as an avatar of its most deeply held aspirations and anxieties. And he’s not always sympathetic: We meet him as a promising student in theoretical physics who gets back at a condescending tutor at Cambridge by poisoning an apple on his desk. “Oppenheimer” begins in medias res - in the middle of things, the “things” being the title character’s whirlwind academic career, which took him from England to Germany and Amsterdam, then finally to Caltech and Berkeley. As Oppenheimer makes a name for himself in quantum mechanics - he’s written a widely circulated paper on molecules - we also meet the man who will become his chief antagonist: Lewis Strauss, the businessman and philanthropist who recruited Oppenheimer to head the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and who would ultimately bring Oppenheimer low after their work together on the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.
There’s a lot of information to keep track of in “Oppenheimer.” Spanning four decades, during which the title character goes from protégé to prophet to pariah, the movie is a jumble of time frames, narrative arcs, and characters who move in and out of the subject’s life in sometimes shocking but always intriguing ways. Luckily, Nolan - who wrote the script, adapted from Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s book “American Prometheus” - knows his way around a scrambled chronology. With movies like “Inception,” “Interstellar” and “Tenet,” Nolan has enjoyed keeping the audience one step behind, world-building across the space-time continuum in ways that probably only Oppenheimer himself could understand. Here, he tames the impulse to be too opaque, keeping the audience oriented and informed throughout a consistently absorbing narrative that demands close attention but rewards that commitment with a movie that evolves from a historical and biographical deep dive to a meditation on moral injury and, in its final hour, to a thoroughly gripping psycho-political thriller.
Who knew that the question of sending radioactive isotopes to Sweden could be so riveting? But it is, thanks to a superbly crafted film in which we watch Oppenheimer not just pursue his career at Berkeley but become besotted by the brilliant psychiatrist and political activist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). Like many in his era, Oppenheimer and his brother Frank (Dylan Arnold) were sympathetic to the freedom fighters in Spain, and sent their contributions to the cause by way of the American Communist Party. Like so many of their peers, the Oppenheimers would be attacked for leftist sympathies during the McCarthy era. But in “Oppenheimer,” the title character’s attraction to inventing the atomic bomb is portrayed within the context of the greater modernist project: When Picasso, Eliot, Stravinsky and Freud are reinventing the world, shouldn’t scientists be just as revolutionary?
Of course, it helps if that enterprise is undertaken during a moment of supreme moral clarity, like beating Hitler to the punch. When Manhattan Project overseer Gen. Leslie Groves (a relaxed, often dryly funny Matt Damon) approaches Oppenheimer to assemble a scientific team to build a bomb that will end the war, “Oppenheimer” enters the let’s-put-on-a-show phase. At Los Alamos, N.M., Oppenheimer becomes “founder, mayor and sheriff” of a community of thousands of researchers and family members who will take three years to build the bombs that would eventually decimate Hiroshima and Nagasaki and launch an era of nuclear escalation and brinkmanship.
One of “Oppenheimer’s” most powerful moments is the A-bomb test, code-named Trinity, which Nolan stages with the familiar self-engulfing flames, but in almost complete silence; the only sound is of Oppenheimer’s nervous breath. Then the shattering boom. Later, when Oppenheimer addresses his Los Alamos team on Aug. 6, 1945, Nolan stages a magical-realist breakdown wherein the man who would be lionized for ending the war becomes overtaken by horror and grief. Throughout “Oppenheimer,” the already reed-thin Murphy seems to grow more skeletal, ethereal, a wraith whose chief features are his glasslike blue eyes, ever-present cigarette and catlike purr of a voice. His Oppenheimer is part machinist, part mystic, ever questioning the implications of what he’s discovering. (Albert Einstein, played by Tom Conti, pops up helpfully as an occasional interlocutor.)
Toggling backward, forward and sideways in time, Nolan doles out tantalizing hints to what would become of Oppenheimer after the war: How Strauss, cannily played by a virtually unrecognizable Robert Downey Jr. as a cold-eyed Washington knife fighter, executed his bureaucratic defenestration during the Red Scare, fueled by actual instances of espionage at Los Alamos. How Oppenheimer would cope with sudden fame, power and his own personal foibles. And how so many of his famous and to-be-famous colleagues responded to the strain of American anti-intellectualism that today feels all too dispiritingly familiar.
Murphy commands “Oppenheimer” as its deceptively still, small center, but he’s surrounded by an impressive cast of supporting players - not just Damon and Downey, but Benny Safdie as Edward Teller, Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr and Gary Oldman as Harry S. Truman. In a film with precious few female roles, Pugh brings bruised life to the commitment-phobic Tatlock, and Emily Blunt mounts an artfully calibrated sneak attack as Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, who spends much of the film sour and disappointed, only to morph into the film’s most ferocious Cold Warrior, her armor a carapace of pearls, Cherries in the Snow lipstick and righteous rage.
There is so much substance to “Oppenheimer”: so many ideas and contradictions and philosophical quandaries; so many egos, talents and temperaments, loyalties and lofty ideals. Murphy’s mesmerizing performance notwithstanding, those ineffable forces are what drive “Oppenheimer,” which Nolan films mostly in finely etched close-ups, punctuated with shots of stars and water and cosmic blasts. Visually, the movie is nothing short of magnificent, both the color footage of the Los Alamos years and the black-and-white sequences featuring Strauss, which glisten as if they were filmed by James Wong Howe. Nolan’s weakness for underscoring detracts from a few scenes that would have been better served simply by letting viewers hear the actors at work, without intrusion. (The film’s urgently propulsive music is by Ludwig Goransson.) But the dialogue in “Oppenheimer” is scrupulously comprehensible - a victory for anyone who has found Nolan’s sound mixes to be unintelligible in the past.
One of the conundrums of “Oppenheimer” is whether its enigmatic title character was a Great Man or the victim of his own inflated self-importance. With that in mind, it feels hyperbolic to call the film a masterpiece. But, without a chalkboard and hyper-qualified brainstorming team handy, that word will have to do. As a filmmaker at the height of his powers, Nolan has used those prodigious skills, not simply to amaze or spectacularize, but to plunge the audience into a chapter of history that might feel ancient, as he reminds us, but happened just yesterday. By making that story so beautiful, so elegantly crafted and compulsively watchable, he has brought to life not just J. Robert Oppenheimer, but the still-crucial arguments he both started and tried to end. “Oppenheimer” boldly posits that those arguments are still worth having, in a film of magnitude, profundity and dazzling artistry.
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Four stars. Rated R. At area theaters. Contains some sexuality, nudity and coarse language. 180 minutes.
Rating guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars okay, one star poor, no stars waste of time.