Of his infamous deadly creation the atomic bomb, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer famously quoted Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Oppenheimer, celebrated for helping end World War II via the bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, ended up vilified and shunned by his own government just a decade later. Now director Christopher Nolan has created a hefty 3-hour biopic of the physicist’s life based on the hefty 700+ page Pulitzer Prize-winning book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.
Cillian Murphy’s cryptic, haunted Robert Oppenheimer is the center of the film, and Nolan leans on unnerving close-ups of his stunning, otherworldly eyes. Despite being the center of almost every scene, he is a bit of a cipher, somewhat buried in his boxy oversized coats, with his fedora hiding his face. We see him as a young man hopping between universities in the U.S. and Europe, crossing paths with other scientists, some of who would be working for the other side during the war. The first hour of the film tries to establish the main players with an overwhelming amount of name-dropping of famous scientific minds, and honestly it helps that the men that play them are recognizable names (or at least faces) in small cameos. Hey! There’s Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr! Tom Conti as Albert Einstein! Josh Hartnett as Robert’s longtime colleague Ernest Lawrence! And that guy! You know, from that thing!
But since Christopher Nolan is Christopher Nolan, the film is broken into three storytelling chunks that you eventually find out are non-linear. In addition to the main storyline showing younger Oppenheimer teaching at Berkeley (and his affair with a passionate card-carrying communist and activist named Jean, played by Florence Pugh), through his selection for the Manhattan Project by General Leslie Groves (a very good Matt Damon), through the Trinity Test of the bomb at the secret lab in Los Alamos, New Mexico, there are two other main storylines. One, in stark black and white, shows former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission Lewis Strauss (an excellent Robert Downey, Jr.) being grilled by Senate committee about his previous association with Oppenheimer as he tries to be appointed Secretary of Commerce. The third (back in color), has Oppenheimer himself being grilled in a closed security hearing, with congressional conservatives threatening to revoke his security clearance due to his liberal, communist-sympathizing past.
For me, the most interesting portion of the story is the fascinating race-against-the-clock drama where isolated scientists face astonishing pressure to come up with a weapon of mass destruction before the Nazis do. The physics of it all—with chalkboards of numbers and arrows, visuals of sparkles and vibrations, and a relentless deafening score—ends up being best illustrated by two bowls of marbles. As the secret U.S. production plants struggle to refine uranium and plutonium, the bowls end up slowly being filling with a couple marbles at a time, showing the nail-biting progress of the much-needed essential ingredients of the bombs.
The rest of the film is basically two separate courtroom dramas, with accusations flying, three-ring binders being slammed, and lots of raised voices… still with Ludwig Göransson’s eardrum-shattering score for emphasis.
With sooooo many named characters, it is sometimes impossible to figure who is being talked about when someone is off screen (you want to say, “Well, why didn’t you just say it Bennie Safdie?”). As far as female characters, it’s easy—there really only two. The aforementioned Florence Pugh does the most with a few small scenes, but her character mainly seems to be there to a) establish Robert as a communist sympathizer, and b) establish that Robert is a womanizer. Her role in his life is given great importance but apparently she barely warrants any screen time to justify that importance. Then there is Emily Blunt, as sharp and flinty Kitty who jumps from her third(?) husband to an affair with Robert (who becomes her fourth). You just know Kitty Oppenheimer is one of the most interesting people in the room (despite or because she is a hot mess), but Blunt is barely in the film. It is to her great credit that she steals the whole security grilling sequence, in a short interrogation scene that she faces head-on with major F-you honestly.
J. Robert Oppenheimer is undeniably a fascinating person who changed history by inadvertently launching the arms race, and he is absolutely worthy of the biopic treatment. But even at 3 hours, there is so much in Oppenheimer the movie that it feels rushed, is often confusing, and is clearly only scratching the surface of the story. Nolan is trying to do too much in a concentrated amount of time (with that biopic mistake of not wanting to edit for fear of leaving things out). This leaves a stuffed story that honestly would be a perfect candidate for a longer, serial drama on a streamer. Oppenheimer, while a solid, interesting movie, is not one that I really want to sit through again. I think I’d rather pick up the book.