Stars: Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr. Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Alden Enrenreich, Jason Clarke, Florence Pugh
Christopher Nolan’s dense biopic of father of the atomic bomb J. Robert Oppenheimer, based on the 2005 biography ‘American Prometheus’ by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, features some impressively muscular analogue filmmaking, along with more questionable narrative choices.
Cillian Murphy is compellingly enigmatic and nervy, as well as worryingly slight in build, as the titular figure. The picture moves back and forth chronologically, with the Trinity nuclear test in 1945 New Mexico serving as the centrepiece, flashing back to Oppenheimer’s early days as a gauche, mentally troubled physics student at Cambridge, and forward to events following the Trinity test and subsequent Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, with a great deal of the third act focused on the 1954 hearing of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission where Oppenheimer was accused of having Communist sympathies. In its profusion of frantically-edited scenes of besuited white men heatedly debating in rooms, the picture often feels redolent of Oliver Stone at his most fevered and conspiratorial - Nolan even includes an over-referential nod to JFK in the script. Consequently, those expecting three hours of wide screen spectacle may come away disappointed.
The constant fidgety chronology-shuffling and man-of-destiny dialogue often renders the viewing experience akin to watching a three-hour trailer, with the female characters – Florence Pugh as Oppenheimer’s suicidal communist girlfriend Jean Tatlock, and Emily Blunt as his equally troubled alcoholic wife Kitty – getting a little lost in the melee.
The middle section of the film in which Oppenheimer is installed as head of the Manhattan Project by the gruff Lt General Leslie Groves (Damon) is by far the most involving with Damon bringing a welcome dose of levity to proceedings as Groves tries to corral the recalcitrant, bickering boffins. The genuinely awe-inspiring, initially silent Trinity test sequence is the picture’s undoubted highlight replete with Oppenheimer’s solemnly intoned Bhagavad-Gita quotation, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ Nolan actually uses the quote earlier in the picture during a sex scene, thankfully stopping short of having it accompany a petit mort, but only just. Murphy delivers an extraordinary moment in which Oppenheimer, having just heard of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs (not shown), and clearly suffering from shock, attempts to sound a triumphal note to his team.
Alas, the subsequent third act which concentrates on the A.E.C. hearings feel anti-climactic, although Robert Downey Jr. does some fine work as commission chairman Lewis Strauss, who has a long-standing vendetta against Oppenheimer. These sequences also speak to a certain American solipsism, foregrounding how the perpetrators feel about their actions over the plight of those affected, something which a bracing and brutal sequence in which Oppenheimer meets President Truman (played by an uncredited Nolan regular) goes only some way to redressing.
Oppenheimer is released on 21st July
Follow David on Twitter @DWill_Crackfilm