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Oppenheimer Review

by Daniel Reynolds
4.0 out of 5.0 stars

Much like its title character, Christopher Nolan and his new film Oppenheimer want to harness the energy of a runaway chain reaction. That notion comes up often over the course of the film’s long runtime as it documents the actions that led to the first atomic bomb test and the nuclear fallout for the major players involved. These are no small things, despite the minutia inherent to the premise—and, anyway, Nolan doesn’t really do small.

True to that form, Nolan marshalls dozens of noteworthy actors—led by Cillian Murphy in an all-consuming performance as J. Robert Oppenheimer—and recreates the means by which it became possible to build the most destructive weapon the world had ever seen. In the process, we learn it all in colour: Oppenheimer’s early schooling, the brushes with legends like Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), his left-leaning sympathies and womanizing (with Florence Pugh on-hand to provide Nolan with his typical woman-in-peril), and always the relentless drive to turn theory into practice. On this last note, the film flourishes, with Nolan taking obvious relish in his film’s discussions of science, the assembling of these special minds, and the awesome—albeit terrifying—American might that laboured to break and remake the world. He’s right to revel: it’s all these details that enthrall. There’s also a concurrent black-and-white section of the film, a political negative anchored by Robert Downey Jr. in a true comeback performance, that’s geared the same way. These sequences represent the film’s largest risk, however; they’re of a piece with the super-structure, though not the main event.

Taken together, Oppenheimer is daunting by design, a history delivery device that keeps adding more layers. Nolan’s push to get it all on the record literally means his film does not go out with a bang. His choice instead for a drawn-out denouement could not hope to be as gripping as what proceeds it, yet that grander context feels necessary. Or perhaps Nolan wants to stick with absolutes: Oppenheimer won the war, but then everything got away from him.

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