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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Reel Critic: “Oppenheimer”

Magnum opus is a term that has been used to describe “Oppenheimer.” Coming from Latin for “great work,” it is a mark of acclaim used to designate the single most important piece of an artist’s career. Having a single opus to one’s name is rare, but even fewer artists attain the contradictory status of having multiple works asserted as their magnum opus — in their case, magna opera. In film, Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg are two figures who occupy this space of rare renown. How can you isolate “Vertigo” as Hitchcock’s sole magnum opus when he also made “Psycho”? Spielberg directed the timeless blockbusters “Jaws” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but can either of those films be elevated as his “great work” without slighting the accomplishments that are “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List”? Now, after releasing his historical epic about the father of the atomic bomb, Christopher Nolan has introduced a new critical dilemma: Can “Oppenheimer” truly be the magnum opus of the director behind “The Dark Knight” and “Interstellar”? The answer depends on how strictly you adhere to the dictionary definition.

Yes, “Oppenheimer” is that good. It is the best film of the year, the best of the decade so far and somehow one of the most impressive entries in the career of a director who has already given audiences so many modern classics. The hype around the film is real, and anyone who has not yet seen it will just have to buy a ticket to understand why.

Nolan’s film chronicles J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life from his time as a brilliant but self-destructive American physics student studying abroad in Europe to his role as the world’s foremost authority on atomic energy policy in the postwar years. Between those two chapters lies the dramatic center of the film: Oppenheimer’s service as the director of the Los Alamos laboratory, the scientific headquarters of the Manhattan Project. It was during this race to build the atomic bomb from 1942 to 1945 that Robert Oppenheimer formed the relationships and made the decisions that would decide the course of his future, providing Nolan with rich material to tell a complex story of duty, consequences and unrequited patriotism.

Chief among its merits, “Oppenheimer” offers a masterclass in acting. Every role in the expansive ensemble cast, from the titular physicist (Cillian Murphy) to Secretary of War Henry Stimson (James Remar), is inhabited by its actor with complete conviction. Among the supporting players, Emily Blunt and Robert Downey Jr. are especially striking as Oppenheimer’s wife and nemesis, respectively. Blunt stirringly evokes the fragility and strength of Kitty Oppenheimer, who struggled with severe bouts of alcoholism and depression but fiercely defended her husband against the smear tactics of his political enemies. The greatest of such enemies was Lewis Strauss, the Washington elite and chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission whose personal and political animosity towards Oppenheimer led him to orchestrate the revocation of the scientist’s security clearance. Downey is electric in his portrayal of Strauss, seething with quiet resentment in some scenes and crumbling into embittered rage in others. His performance as the villain in this historical tragedy is yet more proof that he is one of the finest actors of his day, and it would not be a shock if the “Iron Man” star wins Oscar gold for the role.

Other performances in the film by major actors like Matt Damon, Florence Pugh and Gary Oldman are all deserving of praise. But any discussion of the acting in “Oppenheimer” must focus on Cillian Murphy, Nolan’s longtime character actor who finally received his shot at being the leading man in what is arguably the director’s most ambitious film. Murphy carries every minute of the film’s three-hour running time, balancing — and blending — scenes of introspection and assertiveness, arrogance and timidity, always holding true to Oppenheimer’s famously paradoxical nature. The highlight of Murphy’s performance comes shortly after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Standing behind a podium in a packed gymnasium before his Los Alamos colleagues, the crowd rabid with the thrill of their achievement and eager for a speech from their director, Oppenheimer declares, “It is too early to determine what the results of the bombing might have been. But I’m sure the Japanese didn’t like it!” The crowd erupts, and the smile on the conquering scientist’s face slowly turns to a wince. Murphy dissolves into paralyzed nausea as the scene progresses, the actor wordlessly animating Oppenheimer’s moral pain in what is easily the most unsettling sequence in Nolan’s filmography.

Turning to Nolan himself, “Oppenheimer” sees the director synthesizing 25 years worth of writing and filmmaking craft to create a marvel of cinematic technique. He works from a multilayered script whose passages click into place like puzzle pieces yet remain deeply humanistic, a literary wire walk that he similarly pulled off in “The Prestige” and “Inception.” He tells this story of existential threat on the largest possible canvas, shooting and projecting in his preferred IMAX 70 mm film format. Most notably, the director calls back to the visual style of “Memento,” his 2000 indie hit, by using a combination of color and black-and-white photography to delineate sequences presented from Oppenheimer’s and Strauss’ separate points of view. Nolan is Hollywood’s reigning champion of crosscutting, and it is when he deploys that device to rapidly cut between the color and black-and-white sequences that “Oppenheimer” really begins to feel like something special. That’s because as Nolan whips us back and forth through time and shifts our perspective on the drama, all while maintaining narrative thrust and thematic unity, we feel that one intangible thing that separates this particular filmmaker from his peers: momentum. Better than any living director, Christopher Nolan can grip the audience’s interest from the first frame and gradually heighten it until the final cut to black, delivering a sensation of runaway intensity that makes for a wholly enthralling narrative experience. It is for this reason that “Oppenheimer,” a three-hour-long biopic dominated by dialogue, feels like a thriller. And that is why it will be criminal if Nolan does not win the Academy Award for his latest magnum opus.

Jack Torpey

Jack Torpey '24 (he/him) is an Arts and Culture Editor. He writes film reviews for the Reel Critic column.  

Jack is studying English with a minor in Film and Media Culture. Outside The Campus, he works as a peer writing tutor at the Writing Center and is a member of the Middlebury Consulting Group.