The end of civilization lies within Cillian Murphy’s gaze.
His staggeringly intense eyes and ostensibly stoic expression are a window into a psyche grappling with their role in humanity’s inevitable collapse. As the world moves around him – celebrating, calculating, jockeying for power – Murphy’s J Robert Oppenheimer is perpetually stuck in a quagmire of ruin created by the pursuit of daring scientific progress and the embrace of barely-checked vanity, both of which enabled our worst collective impulses. We flew too close to the sun, and he’s the only one who sees or cares.
With Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan puts a face to the creation of the atomic bomb, the weapon that the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The twin act ended World War II and hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives. The film follows the quantum physicist’s precipitous rise and spectacular fall through three critical periods of his life. There is the bomb’s development, born from Oppenheimer’s boundary-pushing theoretical studies and leadership of the billion-dollar Manhattan Project. Years after the U.S. drops the atomic bombs, Oppenheimer undergoes a hearing to reinstate his security clearance. The hearing ends up exposing his past communist associations and sexual indiscretions, labeling him a traitor and destroying his reputation. His ruined legacy is litigated again during the Senate confirmation hearings of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), a former colleague whose relationship with Oppenheimer soured during the Cold War.
Oppenheimer seeks to understand how he reconciled his forward-thinking brilliance with the new world order he helped usher in. Nolan eschews a traditional narrative structure to cut across the three timeline to create a mosaic of Oppenheimer’s complex mindset. Nolan fearlessly blurs fantasy and reality, the real and the theoretical, as he experiments with every visual marker to convey Oppenheimer’s unease. Visions of atomic explosions plague the younger Oppenheimer, while memories and fantasies of his past lover Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) haunt the elder’s hearing. There are incredibly fluid cuts between Oppenheimer’s fellow scientists working with him on the Manhattan Project and testifying for or against him. The emotional implications land like a gut punch. You can acutely feel Oppenheimer’s spirit under attack, a spiritual death by a thousand little cuts through Nolan’s razor-sharp direction.
While Nolan does elicit sympathy, he doesn’t let its genius off the hook. The film avoids another pratfall of the biopic by not framing Oppenheimer as a martyr, deviant, or another one-dimensional archetype. Oppenheimer is intellectually brilliant but emotionally careless. He can be impulsive, almost to the point of murder. His political neutrality made him an exceedingly easy target for retaliation, especially during the height of the Red Scare. Oppenheimer understands the grave immorality of dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, captured with devastating brutality in his speech to the Los Alamos community. Still, he’s not above indulging in ego strokes. When he refuses to fight the hearing’s spurious allegations, his long-suffering wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) excoriates his self-aggrandizing cowardice.
Through Nolan’s keen lens, Oppenheimer is both a complete, fallible human being and a prescient avatar for the toxic combination of hero worship and unchecked hubris. Cillian Murphy brings both to life in one of the year’s most arresting performances. He makes stunningly intricate acting choices, leaning into drum-tight movements and reactions enhanced by Nolan’s appropriately claustrophobic close-ups on him. And yet, he fully commands attention, building tension that sizzles under your skin but never finds release. Murphy perfectly encapsulates Oppenheimer’s inability to connect and his later belief that he doesn’t deserve connection or absolution. On the other side of the coin is Robert Downey Jr.’s Lewis Strauss, representing ego without guardrails. Downey is marvelous, leveraging his unique screen presence to mask Strauss’ pettiness with genteel politeness. When he rips the mask off to display the worst kind of entitlement, it is staggering.
While Oppenheimer is a marvel of exhilarating storytelling, there is no underselling of its technical achievements. Nolan reaches new heights as a kinetic filmmaker, leveraging every tool to craft the most absorbing cinematic experience imaginable. Jennifer Lame’s editing is drum-tight, keeping the momentum at a surprisingly high level given its three-hour runtime. (The film eventually starts wearing its length, but Nolan still earns every scene he retains.) There couldn’t be a better score than Ludwig Göransson’s, an overwhelming soundtrack to the existential dread bubbling beneath the surface. Even though the film toys with perception, Nolan’s insistence on the power of practicality is unshakeable. The first Trinity Test, where they detonated the atomic bomb, is one of the most extraordinary scenes captured on film. Through spell-binding imagery and jaw-dropping sound design, Nolan conveys both the visual splendor and existential horror the Manhattan Project achieved.
For all its technical grandeur, non-linear storytelling, and scientific and political maneuvering, Oppenheimer ultimately explores what happens when a man acquires terrible power. We’re living in a time where a select few possess weapons that could cause widespread cultural destruction, or worse. Nolan strips away the myth of Oppenheimer but retains that terrible power, exhibiting in vivid detail why no one man should have it. If anyone doubts that premise, all they need to do is look at Cillian Murphy’s gaze.