Christopher Nolan has often spoken of the influence fellow British director David Lean has had on his films. But the careers of the filmmaking
giants are continuing to mirror one another in intriguing ways.
Like Lean, Nolan started small with low-budget mysteries like Memento and Insomnia, graduating to genre-defining classics Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, similar to the way Lean delivered a pair of all-timer Dickens adaptations with Great Expectations and Oliver Twist.
If Dunkirk was Nolan’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, then it stands to reason that Oppenheimer would be his Lawrence of Arabia, an epic biopic sprung from a similarly complicated and tortured soul. Like that film, Nolan’s latest is a state-of-the-art technical marvel and propulsive and poetic character study of the highest order.
In the finest performance of his already consummate career, Cillian Murphy portrays titular theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer throughout an almost 40-year span of his life. He studies at Harvard and the University of Göttingen in Germany before teaching quantum physics at Berkeley. It’s there he meets fellow professor Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett) and a young member of the Communist Party Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), the latter with whom he engages in a hot-and-cold tryst. After becoming aware of his brilliant contributions to the field, Gen. Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) visits Oppenheimer to confer about the Manhattan Project. Recruiting scientists Edward Teller (Benny Safdie) and Robert Serber (Michael Angarano), among many others, Oppenheimer sets up shop in Los Alamos, New Mexico, to develop a weapon that could either light the sky on fire or secure lasting world peace.
Anyone who has seen one of Nolan’s movies knows the chronology naturally cannot be that simple and the director casts these bespoke biopic beats on a timeline that whips back and forth like a sheet on a clothesline during a storm. Nolan frames the main narrative against two hearings at different points in history that would affect Oppenheimer’s legacy: one involving the continuation of his government security clearance and another involving the Senate confirmation hearing of Atomic Energy Commission head Lewis Strauss, played by Robert Downey Jr. The latter storyline is shot in black-and-white, which helps to delineate it from the rest of the action visually but also dramatically, as it’s removed from Oppenheimer’s subjective perspective. It’s also notable as Oppenheimer is the first feature to implement black-and-white photography within an IMAX presentation.
Collaborating again with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and editor Jennifer Lame, Nolan crafts another densely packed epic that bears every signature touch he’s showcased thus far in his oeuvre. He throws his audience in the deep end right away but trusts they’ll catch up with the fast-paced dialogue, which is organically comprised of heady scientific concepts and well-placed historical markers.
The breakthrough here is the sound design, which has received well-deserved criticism over his past few features. Nolan’s penchant for keeping Tom Hardy’s mouth covered rendered much of his dialogue in The Dark Knight Rises and Dunkirk to be either difficult to understand or downright unintelligible. Tenet suffered from both issues despite Hardy’s absence. There are several key moments of sound mixing and editing in Oppenheimer that are downright brilliant and will have you on the edge of your seat.
Nolan is no stranger to qualified ensemble casts, but this may just be the most impressive assembly he’s gathered.
The frame is packed with familiar faces, including Nolan favorites Kenneth Branagh and Gary Oldman, who consistently make the most of their screen time and imbue their characters with distinct qualities that make them unforgettable. I was particularly struck by Safdie, who made a name for himself as co-director of anxious thrillers like Good Time and Uncut Gems but continues to make a case for himself as a unique screen presence. Even characters that are underserved, like Emily Blunt’s Kitty Oppenheimer, are given scenes that allow them to grab hold of the film and not let go until they’re ready.
New movies coming this weekend
Coming to theaters is Haunted Mansion, a horror comedy starring LaKeith Stanfield and Tiffany Haddish about a single mother and her son who hire a former paranormal investigator turned tour guide after they move into a mansion that they discover is haunted.
Also playing in theaters is Talk to Me, a supernatural horror film starring Sophie Wilde and Alexandra Jensen about a group of friends who learn how to conjure spirits using an embalmed hand but unleash terrifying supernatural forces in the process.
Streaming on Apple TV+ is The Beanie Bubble, a comedy biopic starring Zach Galifianakis and Elizabeth Banks about a frustrated toy salesman who collaborates with three women on what would become the biggest toy craze in history.