Movie Review: Oppenheimer's Brian Hogan gives his take on the new Oppenheimer film


Born and raised in Kenosha, Hogan graduated from local schools and earned a bachelor’s degree from UW-Parkside, and has been a CPA for over 25 years. He enjoys golfing, going to the movies and theater, reading, and is a big fan of the Brewers and Packers, but mostly he loves being with his large, extended family.

For three hours I sat, absolutely engrossed, as the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer flashed before my eyes,
in a telling so dense with detail, so rich with characterization, and so rife with implications for our here
and now, that I cannot argue with the critic who described Oppenheimer as the best film of the 21 st
century. Maybe it is, but whether it is the best film of the century to date or not, it most certainly is the
film that this century needs at this moment in time. As we stand on the cusp of mind-blowing advances
in artificial intelligence technologies, now is the time to step back and consider the consequences of
what a new breed of scientists will inevitably deliver to a world that cannot possibly grasp them, much
like that which our forefathers had to grapple with at the birth of the atomic age. Such is the message of
Christopher Nolan’s masterwork.

Oppenheimer presents the cautionary tale that is the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man history has
coined “The Father of the Atomic Bomb.” He was a leading physicist in America at the beginning of the
Second World War and was recruited by the US government to lead The Manhattan Project, a race
against time to build a super weapon before the Nazi Party did, which was thought to have a significant
head start. The movie brilliantly weaves in the autobiographical portrait of Oppenheimer – his studies in
Germany under Werner Heisenberg (who would later lead the German atomic program), his creation of
the first quantum mechanics study program in US academia, his dalliance with left-wing politics in the
1930’s, including his sympathy to communist ideology, his extra-marital affair and his complicated
relationship with his wife, Kitty. It also flashes forward in time to the period after the successful creation
of the atomic bomb to the post-war Red Scare period where his loyalty to the US was questioned and he
was humiliated by the withdrawal of his security clearances. What is quite extraordinary about the film
is that it presents all of these themes, all of the numerous people that appear in Oppenheimer’s life
story (the cast list of this movie must be pages long), in a manner that borders on that of a thriller,
inexorably marching towards that climactic moment when the bomb is tested. I don’t think I will ever
quite forget the hush that falls over the movie theater at the moment when the bomb explodes – it is a
remarkable personal experience that somehow combines national pride, awe-inspiring wonder, and
existential dread. But the wonder of the film does not end there, as it then pivots to the period of time
after the bomb has been used, and the personal toll it took on Oppenheimer who deeply believed that
his weapon had to be used for the leaders of the world to understand that it should never be used
again, only to find that his weapon had not ended war, as he had naively hoped, but had instead
initiated a potentially catastrophic arms race. When his opinions on the pursuit of further advances in
nuclear weaponry became public, efforts were made to throw his loyalty into question and destroy his
credibility, culminating in a kangaroo hearing that removed his security clearances, and by all accounts,
destroyed him.

As I said right off at the start, this is as dense a film as I can ever recall seeing. So many characters, ideas
and events are thrown at you that sometimes it is hard to keep up. I do not find that a criticism; I only
wish more films were this ambitious and respectful of an audience’s intelligence. Of course, movies are
not history, and like most movies Oppenheimer has its hero and villain. There are two main characters in
this film – Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) and Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). Whereas Oppenheimer
was a leftist New Dealer, Strauss was a conservative, self-made Hoover Republican, who deeply
distrusted Oppenheimer’s politics, and even more so, resented what he perceived as Oppenheimer’s
casual arrogance and a very public humiliation of Strauss at a Congressional hearing. It is here that
Nolan’s brilliant alternative uses of black and white and color photography come into play. The black
and white scenes are those that are shown from Strauss’ perspective, and the color scenes are from

Oppenheimer’s perspective. It is a brilliant filmmaking device (more appreciated on a second viewing)
that not only helps you to understand the film’s perspectives, but also that Oppenheimer was operating
in a reality involving world-changing events with flesh and blood people and all of their contradictions
and complexities, while Strauss was a politician working in that murky grey world where an encouraging
arm over the shoulder is meant as a distraction from the knife that has been stabbed in the back.

The performances from the cast are, without exception, magnificent. Cillian Murphy brilliantly captures
every aspect of Oppenheimer – the awkwardness of a young intellectual, the subtle swagger of a genius
(which tragically antagonizes Strauss from the first time they meet), the pride and ambition of a man
involved in historic events, and finally, and most unforgettably, the haunted visage of a guilt-ridden,
beaten man who gave all of his theoretical and managerial acuity in service to his country only to be cast
aside and humiliated for his deeply-felt personal beliefs. Downey is better than I have ever seen him,
and practically unrecognizable as Strauss. He does not turn Strauss into a one-dimensional bad man. In
fact, there are points in the film where I was sympathetic to the arguments that Strauss was making, and
questioning Oppenheimer’s naivete. Oppenheimer let the genie out of the bottle, and was trying
desperately to put it back in, whereas Strauss was trying to make do in the new world that Oppenheimer
helped to create. It is in the latter half of the film, when the movie delves into the role that Strauss
played in destroying Oppenheimer that his animosity and deviousness is truly exposed, and Downey, in
a remarkable tirade shows all of Strauss’ pent-up bitterness, hostility and resentment. As an actor, this is
truly Downey’s finest moment. As Kitty Oppenheimer, Emily Blunt does great work with very little
screen time. Kitty is a biologist, who very grudgingly steps into the role of housewife that 1940’s
America foists on her. She too is resentful – of being a housewife, of her husband’s sexual dalliances,
and finally, of her country’s unfair treatment of her husband and herself, and the betrayals of some in
their circle. Her most effective scene comes near the end and is a great example of what an actor can do
with a moment with no dialogue. The withering, disgusted look on her face when a man she thinks
betrayed her husband offers his hand in friendship is mesmerizing. There are so many others in this film
that it is almost impossible to mention them all. Matt Damon slips very comfortably into the role of
General Leslie Groves, who oversaw the project and appointed Oppenheimer to lead it and would
grudgingly come to befriend Oppenheimer. Tom Conti is very effective in a small role as Albert Einstein.
Alden Ehrenreich is fantastic as a nameless Senate aide assisting Strauss in his Senate confirmation
hearings to become Secretary of Commerce, who communicates his disdain and disgust for Strauss
through a menacing stare and the slightest sneering grin. Not to mention Josh Hartnett, exceptional in
the role of fellow scientist Ernest Lawrence, who now has appeared in one of the very best films about
World War II and the very worst (Pearl Harbor).

Oppenheimer is a brilliant achievement by Nolan and is a film that should not be missed. In fact, it is a
film that invites multiple viewings. I cannot possibly recommend this movie more.