In ‘Oppenheimer,’ director Christopher Nolan tells a historical tale in a richly imaginative way

oppenheimer review

Cillian Murphy stars in “Oppenheimer.”

Fission or fusion? It’s one of the debates at the heart of “Oppenheimer.”

But director Christopher Nolan’s art embraces both.

His movies thrive on establishing conflicts, setting things in opposition, and then letting them pull each other apart. His stories — from “Memento” through “The Dark Knight” and “Dunkirk” — explore the battles between forgetting and forgiving, liberty and security, communal goals and individual initiative.

They also depend on seeing things in different ways, pushing them together, creating unexpected hybrids. Superhero films that make room for real emotional anguish and fully felt performances? Blockbusters that turn on metaphysical concepts of time? Who does that?

Nolan does.

And, as in nuclear physics, while the process — fission or fusion — differs, the result is usually the same. Explosive.

A deeply researched, carefully imagined historical epic, this latest film may seem out of character to casual fans who worship Nolan’s dark Batman trilogy or admire his trio of dense sci-fi adventures — “Interstellar,” “Inception” and “Tenet.”

But if that’s all you know Nolan from, you don’t really know Nolan.

Whatever fantasy or future his pictures may take place in, they are always about ideas. And while they often involve teams working together on ambitious projects, they’re usually about one obsessed individual and his determination to see his own vision through.

Kind of like filmmaking. And that’s at the heart of “Oppenheimer,” too.

Robert Downey Jr. in “Oppenheimer.”

It’s about, superficially, the push to pull together a coalition of brilliant, sometimes querulously independent scientists, to build the first atomic bomb. It’s also, more deeply, about the power of thought, and our inability to control even our own ideas once we’ve expressed them.

And it’s told, quite movingly, through the story of the brilliant J. Robert Oppenheimer, quantum-leaping his way from Manhattan to Cambridge to Berkeley to Los Alamos to Princeton before finally flaming out — having already provided his enemies with the fuel, and all the matches, needed to do the job.

Oppenheimer was a complicated man — a rich boy with an affinity for the underdog, a physicist who struggled with math, a self-styled cowboy who read the Bhagavad Gita (in the original Sanskrit).

Appropriately, Nolan tells his story in a complicated way.

As he did in “Dunkirk,” Nolan divides the movie in three parts, then braids them. There is the private 1954 inquisition, in which Oppenheimer’s loyalties and politics were questioned. There is the public 1959 Senate hearing — filmed in black and white, to set it off — in which one of his longtime antagonists faced his own investigation.

And running through it all is Oppenheimer’s personal story, a very human mess of professional rivalries and romantic disasters.

Cillian Murphy plays Oppenheimer, and it’s a great performance. Great not only because he successfully re-creates some 40 years of a person’s life — and without the tricks of CGI — but because he pulls off the very difficult feat of dramatizing an inherently undramatic character. As seen here, Oppenheimer is like one of his own lab experiments — highly concentrated, perhaps inherently unstable but fiercely, forcibly, contained. So Murphy has to swoon with a glance. He has to rage with a stare.

He’s well partnered by Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss. A longtime behind-the-scenes power, Strauss was a shoe salesman who made a fortune in Wall Street and successfully led relief efforts after World War I. But although physics intrigued him (he would later chair the Atomic Energy Commission), Strauss was no intellectual, as the genuine geniuses around him proved. And Downey — obviously energized to tear into a great part again — reveals the man’s wounded pride and simmering, eventually boiling, rage.

Florence Pugh and Cillian Murphy in “Oppenheimer.”

Nolan’s movies have never been known for their eroticism, providing strong roles for actresses from Anne Hathaway to Marion Cotillard but rarely any truly steamy love scenes. “Oppenheimer” fills that gap, with Florence Pugh playing Oppenheimer’s great, passionately political, emotionally unbalanced love. Yet the couple’s wide-screen love scenes — which, while not quite putting the X in IMAX, are definitely frank — aren’t the most naked moments on screen. Those come from Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer’s wife.

She is emotionally fragile when he meets her; marriage and a wartime move with two toddlers to the New Mexico desert, while her husband works round-the-clock building bombs, doesn’t help. And once his mission is accomplished, his rivals rally against him — yet the weaker he gets, the stronger she becomes. In the end, it is as Einstein always maintained — energy can’t be created, or destroyed. It can only be transformed.

These are the onscreen stars of “Oppenheimer” (aided by an epic of superb and truly supporting actors, ranging from Matt Damon as a pragmatic general to surprise appearances from Kenneth Branagh, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Matthew Modine, former teen stars Josh Hartnett, Josh Peck and Alex Wolff, and even Gary Oldman in a quick bit as Harry Truman).

But the real star is, as always, Nolan.

As an artist, he always has been interested in different ways of presenting narratives (“Memento”), exploring imagery (“Inception”) and incorporating music and sound (“Dunkirk”). He does all three in “Oppenheimer.” Its triple-strand storytelling is both clear to follow and novel enough to make the three-hour running time fly by; its conflation of Oppenheimer’s theoretical ideas with cosmic images of black holes and blazing suns makes the mental, visual. And Ludwig Göransson’s lurking score is as integral to the mood as the film’s regular explosions and occasional, even more shattering silences.

Emily Blunt in “Oppenheimer.”

Admitted, there are one or two tiny missteps — people conveniently popping up to deliver on-the-nose warnings. And the movie, with its elided backstory and intersecting relationships, takes some work.

Takes some risks, too.

Nolan’s films have often presented a traditional, even strongly conservative view of the world (“The Dark Knight Rises” conflated Occupy Wall Street with Robespierre’s Reign of Terror). His “Oppenheimer” refuses to reflexively, glibly condemn America’s wartime use of atomic weapons (although it acknowledges the horrified objections). And one shot — of a successful Oppenheimer, surrounded by cheering workers, as the Stars-and-Stripes flutters in the background — seems, taken out of context, like a shot from a propaganda film. But like its subject, “Oppenheimer” needs to be seen in context, in full. Discussed and debated, in depth, later.

And, finally, appreciated as the most mature and accomplished work of a filmmaker who is only getting better — as he balances fusion and fission, excitingly bringing things together and then explosively tearing them apart.


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