Oppenheimer Review | This Biopic From Christopher Nolan Is an Emphatic Character Study

Most of the films directed by Christopher Nolan have this nature of a visual representation of a hypothesis. His fixation with the concept of time and the fantasy ventures he has created always fascinated us due to the amount of science he puts into them. What sets Oppenheimer apart from most of the other films Nolan has made is the lack of that supernatural element. And in a way, that was perhaps the most challenging thing about this movie for him as a filmmaker, as it was purely about how he will engage us in a tale that is, to a large extent, conversational.

The movie is about Oppenheimer and what happened to him before, around, and after the Trinity test. After many years of studies and research, he was chosen to head the whole thing by General Leslie Groves, despite knowing his inclination towards the communist ideology. We see how that political stand caused issues for him when AEC chairman Lewis Strauss decided to take a personal vendetta against him and tried to paint him as a Soviet spy.

The first thing many people may have to know immediately is whether it is complicated. Well, it is complex, not because of the concept but because of the enormous character pool and the number of events happening in the story. As I write this review, I am doing the one thing we all do after every Christopher Nolan movie; backtracking the whole film. Nolan’s craft and brilliance lie in how he elevates this character exploration drama into a fascinating thriller-like experience. Towards the final act of the movie, when Robert is in this helpless situation cornered by people who want to discredit all his achievements, you sense why Christopher Nolan gave us an extensive idea about this character’s journey.

What is exciting on a drama level in this story is how Oppenheimer is living this life of guilt for having made this weapon of mass destruction, and at the same time, some people are trying to discredit him and label him differently for something they believe was an achievement. The editing style that reserves the tail end of many key conversations to the very last moments of the film actually helps the movie have this signature structure of a Christopher Nolan film. There are three variations of the meeting of Albert Einstein and Oppenheimer in the film, and the impact and perspective are totally different each time. The protagonist’s personal life is not whitewashed as we see him as this womanizer character with flaws.

A major curiosity around this film, and I guess a big reason for the ticket sales to go over the roof, was the visualization of the Trinity test. Since Nolan wanted the movie to be shot in film, they haven’t used any visual effects. The thing is, by the time that moment happens in the film, we are kind of transported into a space where we are more invested in what it was like to be in that moment. Yes, the delay in visual and sound creates a purely cinematic moment that gives a second high point. But Nolan succeeds in making that moment the beginning of Oppenheimer’s emotional trauma with that hallucination bit that mutes the claps.

As many of you may already know, the colored visuals represented Oppenheimer’s perspective, while Strauss’s version was shown in black and white. Since I watched it on a regular screen, I don’t really know how Christopher Nolan used the aspect ratio to convey the intensity and depth of scenarios. Ludwig Göransson’s thumping background scores were just fabulous in creating intrigue in all those crucial moments. The sound design also played a key role along with the score.

As J. Robert Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy delivers a spectacular performance, and the transition from being that homesick boy in Europe to the man who was accused as a Russian spy was subtle and excellent. Eyes are his key features as an actor, and he uses that extensively to convey the dilemma of Oppenheimer. Robert Downey Jr. is pretty unrecognizable as Lewis Strauss. He also transitions from being this concerned individual to someone driven by a personal vendetta in a very believable way. Matt Damon cracks the attitude of Leslie Groves effortlessly. I thought Emily Blunt opted for the part only because of Christopher Nolan, as most of the initial portions of the movie had minimal glimpses of her character. But in that hearing scene with Jason Clarke, Emily steals the scene with her performance.

The elaborate cast of the movie has some really impressive names. Florence Pugh plays the role of Oppenheimer’s love interest and Communist party worker Jean Tatlock. Kenneth Branagh plays the role of Neils Bohr. Gary Oldman was cast as President Truman. Cassey Affleck, Rami Malek, Jack Quaid, and many more were there, along with Tom Conti, who played the role of Albert Einstein.

I haven’t tried to do too much research about the character before watching the film to have that element of seeing something new. Yes, you do get lost when the conversations in the movie refer to too many people and places. But in totality, I don’t really regret my decision to not explore Oppenheimer, the man, before watching this film. Oppenheimer is not a visual marvel. It’s an emphatic character study that uses a visual medium innovatively and effectively to take us close to the mind of its central character.

Final Thoughts

Oppenheimer is not a visual marvel. It's an emphatic character study that uses a visual medium innovatively and effectively to take us close to the mind of its central character.


Green: Recommended Content

Orange: The In-Between Ones

Red: Not Recommended


By Aswin Bharadwaj

Founder and editor of Lensmen Reviews.