Oppenheimer review: Clever, imaginative and Christopher Nolan at his best

Oppenheimer is Christopher Nolan’s best and most revealing work. It’s a profoundly unnerving story told with a traditionalist’s eye towards craftsmanship and muscular, cinematic imagination. Here, Nolan treats one of the most contested legacies of the 20th century – that of J Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy), the “father of the atomic bomb” – as a mathematical puzzle to be solved.

In 1943, at the behest of Major General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), Oppenheimer became director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, the Manhattan Project’s New Mexico site for attempting to successfully build an atomic bomb. Oppenheimer, at first, was driven by moral imperative: he feared deeply, as a Jewish man, about what would happen if the Nazis were to develop a weapon of such deadly capability (that a non-Jewish actor has taken on a role in which identity plays such a central role is, in this light, somewhat strange).

Following Hitler’s defeat, Oppenheimer continued to support the bomb’s deployment in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, convinced that such hellish destruction would not only bring an end to the war in the Pacific, but to all wars. Historians have since disputed the idea that the bombs were in any way necessary for Japan’s surrender (the real turning point, it seems, was the threat of Soviet invasion). And Oppenheimer’s own utopian vision was swiftly dismantled by fellow scientist Edward Teller (Benny Safdie) and the chair of the US Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr), who pushed forward with the creation of the H-bomb, a thousand times deadlier in its scope.

Oppenheimer attempted, in vain, to halt the subsequent nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviet Union. He was promptly silenced using one of America’s most cherished tools of political oppression – anti-Communist hysteria. He was attacked for his personal associations with the Communist Party, through his brother Frank (Dylan Arnold), wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), and ex-lover Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). It was an act of pure, public humiliation.

Nolan observes each of these chapters with sickly wonder, as Jennifer Lame’s editing work and Ludwig Göransson’s clattering score lend Oppenheimer a frightening momentum. The film is constructed in a way that allows its audience to comprehend, on an intellectual level, the profound power and chaos that led its central character to see himself as the “Death, destroyer of worlds” of Hindu scripture. I’m not sure, however, that it burrows deeper than that – into that profound, emotional space that can be both overwhelming and difficult to verbalise. It’s a little too conscious of itself, and the ways cinema crafts its own reality. Throughout, the film teases an unheard conversation between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), its inevitable reveal delivered in the same tone as the solution to the teleportation trick in Nolan’s own The Prestige.

But the prioritisation of cleverness in Oppenheimer isn’t necessarily a criticism of Nolan – more a testament to who he is as an artist. The detonation of the A-bomb, during its first test in the New Mexico desert, is depicted as booming tufts of flame in extreme close-up, coupled with enraptured onlookers. You sense its primal force, the kind of untapped power that led Oppenheimer to view himself as a kind of American Prometheus (also the title of a 2005 biography Nolan drew heavily from). But contrast that, perhaps, with how David Lynch approached the same A-bomb test in his 2017 limited series Twin Peaks: The Return. Lynch drew the camera in, slowly, confronting us with the full-scale of the weapon’s destruction, while sucking us into its very centre, damning us through its inescapability. Nolan’s A-bomb is wondrous until we consider its context; Lynch’s A-bomb is pure nightmare.

The film’s non-linear structure (de rigueur for the Tenet and Inception filmmaker), with each timeline beautifully lensed by Hoyte van Hoytema in either colour or black and white, lends a little more focus to Oppenheimer’s post-war betrayal than it does to the blossoming of his guilt. Large swathes of the film play out as political thriller, the fuel in its engine being Downey Jr’s titanic colouring of Strauss, all boorishness and manipulative charm.

But Nolan is still committed to understanding the innerworkings of his subject. Here’s a man deep in denial. When confronted with photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he averts his gaze. Its horrors rumble (literally) in his peripheral vision, only clear to him when he imagines such brutality inflicted on the white Americans celebrating his “victory” in Los Alamos. Murphy creates his own devastating fission: brilliance torn apart by arrogance. Scene by scene, the light behind his eyes starts to dim. He even has sex the same way he builds bombs. After his extramarital affair turns sour, his wife Kitty chastises him: “You don’t get to commit a sin and then make us all feel sorry when there are consequences.” In Oppenheimer, a man’s private, internal, and political lives are strung together, each a component of the great equation that defines a man’s soul.

Dir: Christopher Nolan. Starring: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Tom Conti, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Josh Hartnett, Kenneth Branagh. 15, 180 minutes.

‘Oppenheimer’ is in cinemas from 21 July