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Christopher Nolan's OPPENHEIMER Is An Engrossing Masterpiece That Reminds Us We're Only One Fucking Lunatic Away From A Nuclear Apocalypse

Since the first trailer for OPPENHEIMER dropped several months ago, I found myself doing something that I haven’t all that much in recent years–counting down the days until a movie came out. I’m not a WWII buff and only knew of the title character on a surface level (i.e. “father of the atomic bomb”). But the eerily captivating clips from a film about the heaviest of topics directed by one of the world’s best, Christopher Nolan, ensured that I would be at the Reading IMAX the day it opened.

On Thursday afternoon, a larger-than-usual audience sat in stunned silence as OPPENHEIMER grabbed ahold of them from the opening scene, mesmerized them for the next three hours, and left them stirred by the physicist’s life story but shaken by the shocking final scenes. That’s because Nolan’s ambitious undertaking is an astonishing, core-shaking, masterful film-making accomplishment that immediately cemented itself as one of the 21st century’s most important movies. I can’t imagine we will see another movie this year (this decade?) that combines the sublimeness and importance of OPPENHEIMER.

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The brilliant Irish actor Cillian Murphy carries a tremendous workload portraying the complex and enigmatic J. Robert Oppenheimer, a brilliant physicist who is brought onto the Manhattan Project by the gruff, ball-busting General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) and put in charge of the secret Los Alamos Laboratory in a secluded part of New Mexico. Using a good cop/bad cop routine, the scientist and the general travel across the U.S. via train to recruit a Dream Team of physicists to the Southwest to fulfill the lab’s unprecedented mission: design and build the world’s first atomic bomb, oh, and ahh…beat the scumbag Nazis to it despite their two-year head-start. In other words, they needed to save the world. No pressure.

As Oppenheimer, the reed-thin Murphy turns in the best work of his career in a stunning performance as the hornball genius prone to shocking bouts of naivete that undermine him, his work, and his marriage to Kitty (a terrifically glum Emily Blunt). A Best Actor nomination is a sure thing for Murphy and, though it’s still only July, it’s tough to imagine another actor topping the superb work that he contributed to Nolan’s masterpiece.

The director again opts for a non-linear script construction that jumps from one storyline (Oppy’s career/life) to another (his Red Scare-fueled security hearing in 1954) to another (the 1959 Senate confirmation hearing for Lewis Strauss of the Atomic Energy Commission) and brilliantly weaves them together before culminating in the film’s dazzling final scenes. Nolan, thanks in large part to Ludwig Göransson’s marvelous and seemingly omnipresent score, does a tremendous job of conveying both the urgency and ultimate stakes at hand. 

This isn’t some sci-fi zombie apocalypse or dystopian nightmare from a virus–we’re talking about the man-made end of mankind as we know it. Even though (spoiler alert) the audience is watching this in 2023, the tension and fear onscreen from events 80 years ago still captivates viewers, especially during the movie’s amazing and jarring money shot: planet Earth’s first-ever detonation of a nuclear weapon early on a summer morning in a vast New Mexico desert. Considering Nolan did not use CGI in the making of the film, the scene is a jaw-dropper that immediately becomes one of the auteur’s most powerful and lingers long after you leave the theater.

Though frequently billed as a biopic, the movie is also a dramatic thriller in the vein of THE INSIDER or ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN but with civilization on the line. It also occasionally plays like a horror flick and even manages to shoehorn in a few chuckles (often from Damon’s General Groves). Nolan also frequently inserts shots of psychedelic roiling flames with sparks darting about to represent what’s going on inside Oppenheimer’s increasingly tortured head.

OPPENHEIMER also boasts a wildly impressive cast where even a trio of Oscar winners have what are essentially cameos (one I didn’t recognize). Much like how a hockey player’s game is raised when he plays with a superstar, the large supporting cast of familiar faces brought their best while working alongside top-tier A-listers Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Blunt, Florence Pugh, and Damon. Two in particular that did standout work and should get serious Best Supporting Actor consideration were the always-aces David Krumholtz as Oppy’s loyal pal Isidor Rabi and the ridiculously hunky Josh Hartnett as his co-worker Ernest Lawrence.

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But they’re going to have a tough time nudging out RDJ for that nom. After playing mostly Iron Man for the last 15 years, I think some forgot (or never knew) just how talented Downey is. Well, he reminded the world that he can hang with the best of them while playing the aforementioned Strauss, a work associate of Oppy. Downey is outstanding in the movie he says is the best one he's ever been in. Additionally, two of the biggest on-screen pricks in recent years–Jason Clarke and Tony Goldwyn–excelled at being on-screen pricks yet again.

I suspect if you were around for the Cold War when the very real and constant threat of mutually-assured nuclear annihilation lingered, then you can likely relate to OPPENHEIMER more than someone who came along after the fall of the Iron Curtain. But make no mistake, even though two superpowers are no longer having a dick-measuring contest with their respective nuclear arsenals, that nightmare scenario is still in play.

It’s certainly no coincidence that Nolan decided to make this movie when he did. It’s not merely a biopic about a horndog physicist who changed the course of human history. On a planet currently dotted with dictators and fascistic skids greased on a few continents, OPPENHEIMER also serves as both a reminder and a warning that the rotten fruits of the man’s labor could also end human history.

A+