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“Oppenheimer” Reveals a Man Troubled by His Own Creation

By Joseph D’Andrea

Christopher Nolan’s historical drama “Oppenheimer” is a massive undertaking that is considerate, in-depth and further proof that Nolan can create as captivating a film as his more visually stunning work (“Interstellar,” “Inception”) with a movie whose three-hour runtime is mostly made up of middle-aged scientists and government officials talking in small rooms.

Focusing on the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project, which developed the first nuclear bombs during the height of WWII, the movie is Nolan’s second stab at a story from this time period — the other being my personal favorite, “Dunkirk.” Despite the fact that I’m a history major, I don’t feel that it’s the reason I love his takes on World War II; when Nolan’s stories are more straightforward and less mind-bending, they can be just as engaging.

The film stars Cillian Murphy as the title character, Emily Blunt as his wife, Robert Downey Jr. as Oppenheimer’s political foil Lewis Strauss, Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves (another overseer of the project), and is padded by an extensive list by even more A-listers including Florence Pugh, Kenneth Branagh and Rami Malek.

With the exception of “Tenet” — which was too much Nolan for me to enjoy — Nolan has had a solid track record dating back to his late ‘90s debut “Following,” and “Oppenheimer” has run up the ranks as one his very best efforts to date.

It’s clear that Nolan genuinely cared about the story he tells with “Oppenheimer.” The extraordinarily tense scenes make you feel like someone is grabbing you by the shoulders and shaking you, but you can’t react because you’re paralyzed with fear, leaving you with the same dead-eyed expression Murphy often has while portraying the multi-layered physicist.

“Oppenheimer” movie proves to be possibly the best directing job Nolan has ever done and his writing moves the story along at a constant pace. It remembers to be relatively simple considering the amount of context surrounding the story, yet is still able to catch you off guard with the help of the creative visuals that left a memorable mark in my mind.

Universal Pictures’ “Oppenheimer” has grossed over $600 million world- wide as of August. Photo by Universal Pictures

The movie is uninterested in portraying historical figures through a biased lens, including the title character himself. The choice to challenge viewers with complex moral questions is the basis of what makes Nolan’s latest stand out from so many other historical movies.

What really separates it is that it doesn’t expect answers to the dilemmas it presents, making you feel as internally conflicted as the “father of the atomic bomb” does throughout the film. It’s a complicated movie that speaks for itself, leaving you free to judge the characters in any way you wish. This makes for an infinitely more interesting movie than if Nolan had explicitly chosen sides on behalf of the audience.

The editing and pacing of the film is the only aspect that I feel mixed on. The to-the-point, grounded feel of the scenes that seem to bleed into one another are very effective during the second half of the movie, which is when the most stressful scenes take center stage. But the first 90 minutes could’ve flowed better if Nolan built up to what the whole movie ultimately feels like: one continuous scene (with the exception of the testing of the hydrogen bomb).

At the same time, leaving us with no time to digest what we’re watching fits well with the theme of a ticking clock and Oppenheimer not being given a moment of relief for nearly the entire three hours. It depends on how you feel about the editing style, but I don’t think it affects the movie too negatively in the long run. After all, for a movie with such a long runtime, it never dragged for a single second.

“Oppenheimer” is currently in the middle of its theatrical run in wide release. It has been beaten out in summer popularity only by “Barbie,” leading movie industry writers to bill this the season of Barbenheimer. (See the related review.)

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