Oppenheimer movie review & film summary (2023) | Roger Ebert (2024)


Oppenheimer movie review & film summary (2023) | Roger Ebert (1)

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For all thepre-release speculationabout how analog epic-makerChristopher Nolan's"Oppenheimer" would re-create the explosion of the first atomic bomb, the film's most spectacular attraction turns out to be something else: the human face.

This three-plus hour biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) is a film about faces. They talk, a lot. They listen. They react to good and bad news. And sometimes they get lost in their own heads—none more so than the title character, the supervisor of the nuclear weapons team at Los Alamos whose apocalyptic contribution to science earned him the nicknameThe American Prometheus (as per the title of Nolan's primary source, the biography by Kai Bird and Martin J.Sherman). Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema use the large-format IMAX film system not merely to capture the splendor of New Mexico's desert panoramas butcontrast the external coolness and internal turmoil of Oppenheimer, a brilliant mathematician and low-key showman and leader whose impulsive nature andinsatiable sexual appetites made his private life a disaster, and whose greatest contribution to civilization was a weapon that could destroy it. Close-up after close-up shows star Cillian Murphy's face staring into the middle distance, off-screen, andsometimes directly into the lens, whileOppenheimer dissociates from unpleasant interactions, or gets lost insidememories, fantasies,and waking nightmares. "Oppenheimer" rediscovers the power of huge closeups of people's faces as they grapple with who they are, and who other people have decided that they are, and what they've done to themselves and others.


Sometimes the close-ups of people's facesare interrupted by flash-cuts of events that haven't happened, or already happened. There are recurring images of flame, debris, and smallerchain-reaction explosions that resemble strings of firecrackers, as well as non-incendiaryimages that evoke other awful, personal disasters. (There are a lot of gradually expanding flashbacks in this film, where you see a glimpse of something first, then a bit more of it, and then finally the entire thing.)But these don't just relate to the bigbomb that Oppenheimer's team hopes to detonate inthe desert, or the little ones that are constantly detonating in Oppenheimer's life, sometimes because he personally pushed the big red button in a moment of anger, pride or lust, and other times because he made a naive or thoughtlessmistake thatpissed somebody off long ago, and the wronged person retaliated with the equivalent of a time-delayed bomb. The "fissile" cutting, to borrow a physics word,is also a metaphor for thedomino effect caused by individualdecisions, and the chain reaction that makes other things happen as a result. This principle is also visualized by repeated images of ripples in water, starting with the opening closeup of raindrops setting off expanding circles on the surface that foreshadow both the ending of Oppenheimer's career as a government advisor and public figure and the explosion of the first nuke at Los Alamos (which observers see, then hear, then finally feel, in all its awful impact).

Theweight of the film's interests and meanings are carried by faces—not just Oppenheimer's, but those of other significant characters, including General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), Los Alamos' military supervisor; Robert's suffering wifeKitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt), whose tactical mind could have averted a lot of disasters if her husband would have only listened;and Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.), the Atomic Energy Commission chair who despised Oppenheimer for a lot of reasons, including his decision to distance himselffrom his Jewish roots, and whospent several years trying to derail Oppenheimer's post-Los Alamos career. The latter constitutes its own adjacent full-lengthstory about pettiness, mediocrity,and jealousy. Strauss is Salieri to Oppenheimer's Mozart, regularly and oftenpathetically reminding others that he studied physics, too, back in the day, and that he's a good person, unlike Oppenheimer the adulterer and communist sympathizer. (This film asserts that Straussleaked the FBI file on his progressive and communist associations to a third party who then wrote to the bureau's director, J. Edgar Hoover.)

The film speaks quite often of one of the principles of quantum physics, which holds thatobservingquantum phenomena by a detector or an instrument can change the results of this experiment. The editing illustrates it by constantly re-framing our perception of an event to change its meaning, and the script does it by adding new information that undermines, contradicts, or expands our sense of why a character did something, or whether they even knew why they did it.

That, I believe, is really what "Oppenheimer" is about, much more so than the atom bomb itself, or even its impact on the war andthe Japanese civilian population, which is talked about but never shown. The film does show what the atom bomb does to human flesh, but it's not recreations of the actual attacks on Japan: theagonized Oppenheimer imagines Americans going through it. Thisfilmmaking decision is likelyto antagonize both viewers who wanted a more direct reckoning with thedestruction ofHiroshima and Nagasaki, and those who have bought into the arguments advanced by Strauss and others that the bombs had to be dropped because Japan never would have surrendered otherwise. The movie doesn't indicate whether it thinks that interpretation is true or if it sides more with Oppenheimer and others who insisted that Japan was on its knees by that point in World War IIand would have eventually given up without atomic attacks that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. No, this is a film that permits itself the freedoms and indulgences of novelists, poets, and opera composers. Itdoes what we expect it to do:Dramatize the life of Oppenheimer and other historically significant people in his orbit in an aesthetically daring way while also letting all of the characters and all of the events be used metaphorically and symbolically as well, so thattheybecome pointillistic elements in a much larger canvas that's about the mysteries of the human personality and the unforeseen impact of decisions made by individuals and societies.


This is anotherstriking thing about "Oppenheimer." It's notentirely about Oppenheimer even though Murphy's baleful face and haunting yet opaque eyes dominate the movie. It's also about the effect of Oppenheimer's personality and decisions on other people, from the other strong-willed members of his atom bomb development team (including Benny Safdie's Edwin Teller, who wanted to skip ahead to create the much more powerful hydrogen bomb, and eventually did) to the beleaguered Kitty; Oppenheimer's mistress Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh, who has some of Gloria Grahame's self-immolating smolder);General Groves, who likes Oppenheimer in spite of his arrogance but isn't going to side with him over the United States government; and evenHarry Truman, the US president who ordered the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (played in a marvelous cameo by Gary Oldman) and whoderides Oppenheimer as a naive andnarcissistic "crybaby" who sees history mainly in terms of his own feelings.

Jennifer Lame'sediting is prismatic and relentless, often in a faintly Terrence Malick-y way, skipping between three or more time periods within seconds. It's wedded to virtually nonstop music byLudwig Göranssonthat fuses with the equally relentlessdialogue and monologues to create an odd but distinctivesort of scientificallyexpository aria that's probably what it would feel like to read American Prometheuswhile listening to a playlist ofPhilip Glass film scores. Non-linear movies like this one do a better job of capturing the pinball-machine motions of human consciousness than linear movies do, and they also capture what it's like to read a third-person omniscient book (or a biography that permits itself to imagine what its subjects might have been thinking or feeling). It also paradoxically captures the mental process of reading a text and responding to it emotionally and viscerally as well as intellectually. The mind stays anchored to the text.But it also jumps outside of it, connecting the text to other texts, to external knowledge, and to one's own experience and imaginings.

This review hasn't delved into the plot of the film or the real-world history that inspired it, not because it isn't important (of course it is)but because—as is always the case with Nolan—the main attraction is not the talebut the telling. Nolan has been derided as less a dramatist than halfshowman, halfmathematician, making bombastic, overcomplicated blockbusters that are as much puzzles as stories. But whether that characterization was true (and I'm increasingly convinced it never entirely was) itseems beside the point when you see how thoughtfully and rewardinglyit's been applied to a biography of areal person."Oppenheimer"could retrospectively seem like a turning point in the director's filmography, when he takes all of the stylistic and technical practices that he'd been honing for the previous twenty years in intellectualized pulp blockbusters and turns them inward.


The movie isan academic-psychedelic biography in the vein of those 1990s Oliver Stone films that were edited within an inch of their lives (at times it's as if the park bench scene in "JFK" had been expanded to three hours). There's also a strain of pitch-black humor, in a Stanley Kubrickmode, as when top government officials meet to go over a list of possible Japanese cities to bomb, and the man reading the list says that he justmade an executive decision to delete Kyoto from itbecause he and his wife honeymooned there. (The Kubrick connection is cemented further by the presence of "Full MetalJacket" starMatthew Modine, who co-stars as American engineer and inventor Vannevar Bush.) It’s an example of top-of-the-line, studio-produced popular art with a dash of swagger, variously evoking MichaelMann's "The Insider," late-period Terrence Malick, nonlinearly-editedart cinema touchstones like "Hiroshima Mon Amour," "The Pawnbroker," "All That Jazz" and "Picnic at Hanging Rock"; and, inevitably,"Citizen Kane" (there's even a Rosebud-like mystery surrounding what Oppenheimer and his hero Albert Einstein, played by Tom Conti, talked about on the banks of a Princeton pond).

Most of the performances have a bit of an "old movie"feeling, with the actors snapping off their lines and not moving their faces as much as they would in a more modern story. Alot of the dialogue is delivered quickly, producing ascrewball comedy energy. This comes through most strongly inthe arguments between Robert and Kitty about his sexual indiscretions and refusal to listen to her mostly superbadvice;the more abstract debates about power and responsibility between Robert and General Groves, and the scenes between Strauss and a Senate aide (AldenEhrenreich) who is advising him as he testifies before a committee that he hopes will approve him to serve in President Dwight Eisenhower's cabinet.

But as a physical experience, "Oppenheimer" issomething else entirely—it's hard to say exactly what, and that's what's so fascinating about it. I've already heard complaints that the movie is "too long," that it could've ended with the firstbomb detonating, and could'vedone without the bits about Oppenheimer's sex life and the enmity of Strauss, and that it's perversely self-defeating to devote somuch of the running time, including the most of the third hour, to a pair ofgovernmental hearings: the one where Oppenheimer tries to get his security clearance renewed, and Strauss trying to get approved for Eisenhower's cabinet.But the film's furiously entropic tendencies complementthe theoretical discussions of the how's and why's of theindividual and collective personality. To greater and lesser degrees, all of the characters are appearing before a tribunal and bring called to account for their contradictions, hypocrisies, and sins. The tribunal is out there in the dark. We've been given the information but not told what to decide, which is as it should be.


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Film Credits

Oppenheimer movie review & film summary (2023) | Roger Ebert (9)

Oppenheimer (2023)

Rated Rfor some sexuality, nudity and language.

181 minutes


Cillian Murphyas J. Robert Oppenheimer

Emily Bluntas Katherine 'Kitty' Oppenheimer

Matt Damonas Gen. Leslie Groves Jr.

Robert Downey Jr.as Lewis Strauss

Florence Pughas Jean Tatlock

Benny Safdieas Edward Teller

Michael Angaranoas Robert Serber

Josh Hartnettas Ernest Lawrence

Rami Malekas David Hill

Kenneth Branaghas Niels Bohr

Dane DeHaanas Kenneth Nichols

Dylan Arnoldas Frank Oppenheimer

David Krumholtzas Isidor Isaac Rabi

Alden Ehrenreichas Senate Aide

Matthew Modineas Vannevar Bush

Gary Oldmanas Harry S. Truman

Alex Wolffas Luis Walter Alvarez

Casey Affleckas Boris Pash

Jack Quaidas Richard Feynman

Emma Dumontas Jackie Oppenheimer

Matthias Schweighöferas Werner Heisenberg

David Dastmalchianas William L. Borden

Christopher Denhamas Klaus Fuchs

Josh Peckas Kenneth Bainbridge

Tony Goldwynas Gordon Gray

Olivia Thirlbyas Lilli Hornig

James Remaras Henry Stimson


  • Christopher Nolan

Writer (based on the book by)

  • Kai Bird
  • Martin Sherwin


  • Christopher Nolan


  • Hoyte van Hoytema


  • Jennifer Lame


  • Ludwig Göransson

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Oppenheimer movie review & film summary (2023) | Roger Ebert (2024)


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