Legendary director Christopher Nolan rewinds time once again to dissect an enigmatic historical figure in his latest cinematic feat, Oppenheimer. With meticulous detail and stellar performances, Nolan explores J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist dubbed “father of the atomic bomb” for leading the Manhattan Project. Cillian Murphy is transfixing in the title role, bringing this conflicted scientist to life in haunting fashion.
Oppenheimer opens with the dramatic explosion of the first nuclear test in 1945 New Mexico. But this impactful moment merely launches us into the story of the man behind it. We meet Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) at the height of his power as head of the top-secret Manhattan Project. Though arrogant in his brilliance, self-doubt gnaws at Oppenheimer over the moral implications of his work.
The script by Nolan and Kai Bird strategically jumps around the physicist’s life. We see vignettes from his radical leftist college days, academic career, and eventual recruitment into government weapons research. This fractured timeline mirrors Oppenheimer’s own splintered psyche. One moment we witness the exhilaration of breakthroughs in the lab, the next we watch Oppenheimer brooding fireside with regret and anxiety.
Murphy is simply sensational as the renowned scientist. With glasses, a crumpled hat, and ever-present cigarette, he fully morphs into character. The Irish actor captures Oppenheimer’s quirks and charisma, but also profound self-questioning. Murphy’s portrayal creeps up on you as he reveals the depths of this peculiar genius. It’s an understated tour de force performance.
Nolan’s direction is sweeping yet intimate in recreating Oppenheimer’s journey. From Princeton to Los Alamos, the settings feel authentic to the era. Shadowy, smoky cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema creates an ominous dreamlike mood around Murphy’s riveting presence. Period costumes and props fully immerse us in WWII-era scientific exploration. The visual craftsmanship is top-notch.
The first half explores Oppenheimer’s radical student days and academic career. Despite leftist views, his unparalleled intellect eventually lands him in charge of the confidential Manhattan Project. Nolan engagingly dramatizes how this fish-out-of-water came to lead development of history’s most destructive weapon.
Once at the helm, Oppenheimer pushes the research ahead at full throttle. Nolan excitingly stages the eureka moments in the lab as the bomb nears reality. But he also poignantly shows Oppenheimer grasping the terrifying implications of success. As the physicist’s anguish grows, Murphy makes us feel his escalating ethical dilemma.
Supporting turns by Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, Matt Damon as military head General Groves, and Florence Pugh as Oppenheimer’s ex-girlfriend add texture. But Murphy remains the center of gravity. Once the first nuclear test proves successful, we stay focused on Oppenheimer’s emotional reaction as the scope of his achievement washes over him.
Oppenheimer presents an intimate yet expansive portrait of a contradictory figure who changed history. Cillian Murphy gives a haunting performance that sticks with you. Nolan has crafted another smart biopic examining a consequential life with ethical complexities. From start to unsettling finish, this is engaging, thought-provoking filmmaking.