The World Changes Forever in 'Oppenheimer' (2023)Written & Directed by Christopher Nolan/Grade: A+
Finally got to see Oppenheimer (2023) today, my most anticipated film after Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023). What an incredible experience! If you are still contemplating whether to drive out to the theater to witness it, I would strongly advise you in that direction.
Essentially, the movie tracks the life of scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) and his role in the creation of the atom bomb, as well as the fallout after his invention was later used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That bare-minimum premise has been taken by writer-director Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight), and turned into his first true masterpiece. Now I've always been a fan of Nolan- he's been one of my favorite filmmakers since I was a kid- but he's never previously made a film that I would consider to be utterly flawless. Here, from frame one, every aspect of his craftsmanship fires on all cylinders.
Let's start with the writing and editing, the latter beautifully done by Jennifer Lame (Hereditary, Marriage Story). Always one for non-linear storytelling, Nolan structures his movie in two chapters: "Fission", which is represented in full color and shows everything leading up to and following the creation of the first nuclear bomb, and "Fusion", which is shown in black-and-white, and primarily consists of court hearings for Oppenheimer and his cohorts. Not once was I ever lost as to where I was being led, or why. Not a scene was wasted, either, with every little detail serving to propel the story forward. There is such a clarity and confidence in the cutting and the screenplay, that the three-hour runtime was barely noticeable. I was taken along through this picture with as much captivation as if it was a thriller. Also, if Ms. Lame doesn't take home the Best Film Editing Oscar next year, I will revolt.
The technique also does not get in the way of the heart, and Nolan rightly keeps his subjects firmly centered here. Cillian Murphy, a regular of this director's work, turns in the performance of his career, one that will surely secure him a Best Actor nomination. He starts off very much as a man convinced of his ideas, consumed by the passion and intelligence to do what is necessary to bring them into existence. He's also quite the ladies' man, true to the real Oppenheimer's personality. His scenes with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh, in a small but impactful amount of screen time), or the courtship of his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt, doing her best work since A Quiet Place), sparkle with sheer electricity.
As events progress, however, and Oppenheimer begins to experience the fuller weight of his invention, Murphy exhibits a conflicting range of emotions that make him incredibly easy to identify with, to feel Oppenheimer himself must have felt. No amount of dialogue this actor has to deliver, good as it is, surpasses his ability to make us understand him with just a look in the eyes, or how he holds himself. It's a landmark performance.
I also give immense credit to Hoye van Hoytema's immaculate cinematography. Having worked with Nolan before on Interstellar (2014), Dunkirk (2017) and Tenet (2021), he knows how to achieve the large-scale wow factor his most frequent collaborator looks for. What's more impressive here is how intimately close up with the characters the camera is. The IMAX format Nolan often shoots with is used here to emphasize the weight of everyone's internal journeys, not just the spectacle on-screen (though it is awe-inspiring). No matter what the shot size, no matter how the camera moves, Hoytema knows exactly how to frame his images so we are with these people every single step of the way.
A large part of that immersive effect is also due to two additional key elements: the sound design by Richard King (who won a Best Sound Editing Oscar for The Dark Knight), and the intense score by Ludwig Goransson (Black Panther). Something about both of these elements so brilliantly hammers home not so much what we should feel, but the seismic consequences of Oppenheimer's actions, and the effect those consequences have on those around him. It made me feel almost like I was inside the film, experiencing all of this myself.
I know I had quite effusive things to say about Asteroid City (2023), Wes Anderson's latest, but this... oh boy, this is a whole other ball game. Oppenheimer is not a feel-good film, but it shows Christopher Nolan utilizing the full breadth of his and his team's talents, to give a totally comprehensive experience through the most central passages of this man's life. The movie of the year, it is.