Get sucked in by the drama and Cillian Murphy's stare.
Now this is a story all about how / the world got flipped turned upside down / with a bomb from the Manhattan Project cadre / here's the life of Oppenheimer (and his thousand-yard stare).
Christopher Nolan isn't making films, he's creating an experience. For his latest trick, he presents the biopic of the father of the atomic bomb, J Robert Oppenheimer. Adapted from American Prometheus written by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin, the film chronicle the famed theoretical physicist's life, from student life at Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge to being the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory to getting his security clearance revoked due to tenuous communist ties.
It seemed strange for Nolan to take up a profile like Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy). Especially, when it's shot in Nolan's preference for the IMAX experience. There are no action scenes, nothing that befits the movie being shot on large format film stock—IMAX 65mm and Panavision 65mm film—(there was an estimated 17.7km worth of finished film stock) but Nolan sees it apt to highlight Oppenheimer on such a scale.
It's quite amazing how it all came together. There's nary a dull moment throughout the film's three-hour running time thanks to Nolan's deft direction, stellar ensemble and immaculate sound engineering. Not content with a linear re-telling of Oppenheimer's life, the film jumps back and forth to key moments and not only that it switches between the perspectives between Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr), a senior member of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC); one in colour and the other in stark black-and-white, respectively.
The sound and music for Oppenheimer is something to behold. Faithful to the physics, the sound follows after we see the explosion. This is also true during a storm, where we see the flash of lightning, followed by the boom of thunder. When the first nuclear weapon test started, the expected sounds of the explosion were sidelined by Oppenheimer's breathing as he saw the conflagration of fire and billowing smoke. In the theatre, we sat transfixed by the near-silence of the explosion before the sound kicked in.
In his second time working with Nolan, Ludwig Göransson took Nolan's advice in using the violin as Oppenheimer's central theme. Göransson said that the stringed instrument could go from "the most romantic, beautiful tone in a split second to neurotic and heart-wrenching, horror sounds".
The best example is the nuclear explosion at Trinity (the codename of the site where it took place). We were at the edge of our seats in the lead-up to the experiment. Which is weird because all the historical accounts said that the experiment went off without a hitch. But how it was edited and soundtracked, you hope the experiment will be successful.
Cillian Murphy, who is well-known for his tenure in the TV series, Peaky Blinders, puts on a defining performance as Oppenheimer. Demonstrating the complexity of Oppenheimer with nuance would hobble a lesser actor but not in Murphy's hands. With Murphy, Oppenheimer comes across as a sympathetic Frankenstein (the doctor not as most erroneously would assume, the monster), a man who witnessed the mysteries of the atoms with awe and, later in the film, as a nuclear shade who is now the self-appointed martyr for ushering in the Atomic Age.
Furthering adding to fleshing out Oppenheimer, Murphy went on an intense transformation by reading up on the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu religious text that Oppenheimer would quote from and going on a diet that reduced him to his character’s stick-thin frame.
Downey Jr gives one of the best performances of his career as the embittered Strauss, who has a fractious relationship with Oppenheimer. Driven by ambition, Downey Jr displays a man who is an imposing figure in America’s nuclear program but dwarfed by his pettiness against a slight from Oppenheimer. Emily Blunt plays Oppenheimer's wife, Kitty, and she holds her own in this movie. Her deathstare towards her husband's ex-colleague or her bemused reaction during an interrogation, Blunt conveys the hidden pillar of strength in Oppenheimer's marriage.
I'm just glad that Murphy is back to playing the lead for a major film. To my limited memory, the last films that Cillian Murphy headlined were Sunshine and 28 Days Later.
Because there's something mesmerising about the way he stares at you; as though vacant but yet arresting at the same time. I'm pretty sure if there was a short film of just the camera pushing in slowly into Murphy's haunted mien, people would pay money to see it.
I mean, look at him. Now imagine if this was in colour, you will DIE IN THOSE POOLS OF BLUE.
Seven words: NOT SEEING CILLIAN MURPHY'S DONG ON IMAX.
I'm joking. Mostly. I'll explain. This is Christopher Nolan's first R-rated movie and it touches on Oppenheimer's love life with Jean Tatlock (played by Florence Pugh). Nolan felt that the sex scenes between Oppenheimer and Tatlock were necessary to showcase the couple's deep connection. There were rumours that this might show full frontal nudity from both actors but alas, nothing from Murphy. Not even a bare buttock. (We are all about having more male actors go the full monty on the big screen. CHILL IT WITH THE DOUBLE-STANDARD HOLLYWOOD.)
I get that Nolan doesn't want to shy from the intimate moments between Oppenheimer and Tatlock but it felt gratuitous. And it would be nice to have more insight into Tatlock's life and motivations. The character does not seem fully fleshed out. Even Emily Blunt's Kitty barely escaped this bare-bones characterisation.
The number of established actors that are part of this cast. Aside from the marquee names like Matt Damon as Lieutenant General Leslie Groves and Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock, there are other notable faces to spot. Personalities like Jason Clarke as Roger Robb; Josh Hartnett as Ernest Lawrence; Dane DeHaan as Kenneth Nichols; Benny Safdie as Edward Teller; James Urbaniak as Kurt Gödel; Jack Quaid as Richard Feynman; Olivia Thirlby as Lilli Hornig; Casey Affleck as Boris Pash; Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr; Gary Oldman as President Harry S Truman and so on.
The only notable person not in the cast is Sir Michael Caine. Having appeared in all of Nolan's production since Batman Begins in 2005, this is the only film that doesn't feature him.
Also, don't forget the end-credit scene that sets up the Oppenheimer sequel. JK.
Oppenheimer is now out in theatres.