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Movies, Reviews

Oppenheimer Review: Powerful Storytelling That Lives Up to the Hype

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, Oppenheimer, the movie being covered here, wouldn’t exist.

*Please note this review contains spoilers for Oppenheimer.

One of the most anticipated movies of the year, you would hope that Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer will live up to the hype. And boy does it.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Oppenheimer tells the story of the physicist who is responsible for the creation of the Atomic bomb — and the moral questions that came along with that work.

The movie spends much of its first hour on exposition to show what kind of man Robert Oppenheimer was. And to be clear, we’re talking about him as a character from this point forward.

Oppenheimer film - Cillian Murphy
Oppenheimer film – Cillian Murphy

The audience sees him as a brilliant scientist who doesn’t quite fit in. He’s a man who has a loneliness about him, who is often trapped by the inner workings of his mind.

Yet the point isn’t to feel sorry for him. He’s narcissistic and has it in his heart to inject an apple with cyanide to get back at an instructor who shames him in the lab.

This scene ultimately foreshadows the rest of the film. While Robert is capable of injecting an apple with poison, knowing full well what the purpose of doing so is, his conscience catches up to him and he races to stop the man from eating the poisoned apple.

There’s symbolism here that goes back to the tale of Snow White, too. It’s an example of how very layered this film truly is.

Robert eventually moves to Germany to study Quantum Mechanics. Being a Jewish man there at that time complicates matters, something the film could have done well to explore a bit more than it does.

Yes, it’s a three-hour movie, which is over-the-top for any film, yet there are plenty of times the film rushes past important moments and glosses over characters that deserve a little more attention.

There’s no question this is an extremely male movie. It’s based in history, so it’s not shocking that the key characters are all white men. However, Robert’s relationships with Jean (Florence Pugh) and Kitty (Emily Blunt) are so central to the man he is and the man he evolves to be throughout the film.

Both women, and those stories, aren’t given enough screen time. It’s a shame to see Pugh and Blunt underutilized in this way. They each give incredible performances, no doubt, but even fleshing out their stories just a tiny bit more would have made this film more satisfying.

In particular, it’s disappointing that more attention isn’t given to the way Robert and Kitty struggle with Peter as a baby, or to Jean’s eventual suicide.

oppenheimer

The film remains breathtaking and deeply emotional despite those flaws, though. The way the story unfolds, with flashbacks and transitions from color to black-and-white, allows for a more artful narrative as the audience puts the pieces together to understand the mistakes Robert made — and what was out of his hands entirely.

What Oppenheimer does is leads the audience to actually root for, at least on some level, the success of the bomb that Oppenheimer has been asked — er, told — to work on. The justification is that it’s the only way to end the war altogether, but more than that, the audience is brought along for the journey of a great science experiment.

Brilliant scientists gather together in a town created for just this purpose. They bring their families to Los Alamos and pour everything they have into making the bomb a reality. Their hard work and their sacrifices become the key focus, Robert’s included.

Add to that, as they prepare to test the bomb, they understand the very real possibility that it could destroy the entire world.

Oppenheimer film - Cillian Murphy
Oppenheimer film – Cillian Murphy

So when the scientists finally test the bomb, it’s the beauty of it that takes center stage. The explosion is presented in magnificent, gorgeous detail.

It’s astounding, colorful, artistic, and silent — until it isn’t. The sound comes crashing in startling form to signify just how terrifying this weapon could be.

To say this is a powerful moment would be one heck of an understatement.

But the moment that really matters, the one that leaves a pit in your stomach, is when the scientists learn that the bomb has been dropped over Hiroshima.

Again, it’s a scene presented in artistic detail, flashing back and forth between cheers and reactions of guilt and sickness. And as Robert is to speak about its success, what he sees instead is the damage that’s been done, in every horrifying, unsettling image.

Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of Robert Oppenheimer is incredible throughout the film, but this may be the standout moment. He makes the audience every conflicted feeling he does, and it’s gutwrenching.

There is more to this story, however. As Robert battles his guilt over what he’s helped create, and fights fame, he hopes to prevent the government from using this as a stepping stone to create something worse. And all the while, he comes to be accused of leaking information.

Oppenheimer film - Cillian Murphy

While this part of the film is perhaps the least interesting overall, it reveals the motives of the people around him, and it serves, narratively, as a way to explain key parts of his character throughout the film.

This part of the film is intertwined with the rest and contributes further to the way the audience feels about Robert.

It also reveals his downfall and eventually leads the film to what is perhaps its most poignant message. There was always the possibility, as the scientists work to create the bomb, that it could start a chain reaction that may never end. And ultimately, it did.

As emotional, beautiful, and thought-provoking as this film is, it’s that much more powerful because it’s based on historical events. It’s a film I won’t be able to shake for a long time.

What did you think of Oppenheimer? Let us know in the comments below!

 

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Oppenheimer is currently playing in theaters.

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Ashley is the Editor-in-Chief of Eulalie Magazine. Favorite Movies: Sunset Boulevard, Garden State, Modern Times. Favorite TV Shows: Gilmore Girls, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Grey's Anatomy. Favorite Books: Interview with the Vampire, Dracula, City of Glass.

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