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Oppenheimer Movie Review

Updated: Mar 28

If you like Christopher Nolan’s moody neo-noir style, you will love Oppenheimer. Following the story of the head scientist on the “Manhattan Project,” the film goes past showing you what you already know, the loose history of how the atomic bomb was created, the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, as well as the aftermath of the McCarthy trials that came after.

While the viewer is enthralled, meeting the scientists that filled our bio and chemistry books growing up, and orienting the story with World War II, the film heavily focuses on J. Robert Oppenheimer or “Oppie,” played by Cillian Murphy, and his journey leading up to creating the atomic bomb.

One of the film’s greatest strengths was establishing Oppie as a morally gray protagonist. Oppie’s character lacks people skills at the beginning of the movie; however, his intelligence is very apparent. The characterization was formulated around the factor that he was bullied heavily during his undergraduate years by his classmates because he always had a lot of trouble executing the experimental aspect of his field. As a result of this, Oppenheimer went into himself, creating a world in which he could theorize and imagine the world on an atomic level.

This inevitably becomes one of Oppie’s greatest pitfalls. As the story progresses to the testing of the atomic bomb, subtle hints are left for Oppie and the viewer to indicate the destruction this bomb could cause.

One of these hints was the metaphor of Prometheus, the god of creation and fire. In the original myth, Prometheus steals Zeus’s fire from atop Mount Olympus and brings it to Earth to give to humanity. As a result, Oppie, like Prometheus, was sentenced to a tortured existence.

At the heart of the myth, I see a single lesson. Prometheus gave humanity the power to destroy itself and to take on, and forsake the gods, inevitably leading to their downfall. The metaphor becomes an integral throughline for the film, comparing Oppie and his tribulations to the myth of a god.

By the time we get to the testing of the atomic bomb, we have been hanging out with the scientists for at least two hours, and as an audience member, you can begin to wrap your head around the notion of how large the atomic bomb is going to be. Although nothing truly prepares you for that moment. The anticipation for the outcome of the test, the silence coupled with the blast of blinding light, and followed by the bomb’s ear-bleeding cacophony. As a viewer, everything after that point lost its humor. To know that we were going to use, and have used a bomb that size on human beings was horrifying, and the possibility of what that discovery could lead to, and has led to, was completely and utterly disheartening. Oppenheimer would soon come to realize that he couldn’t go back, he had opened Pandora’s box.

For the last hour of the film, the focus was on the McCarthy trials. A period in American history in which the American government decided to have a witch-hunt for communists because they believed, in their Cold War mindset, that the American communists were linked to Russia and China and were planning the downfall of capitalism in the United States. However, none of this was explained in the film, specifically the nuances of communism.

Many of the characters in the film, including Oppenheimer himself, his wife, his mistress, his brother, and his brother’s wife all had ties to the communist party at one point in their life. From a narrative standpoint, the film should have explained communism further, which would have shed further light on Oppenheimer’s, internal moral struggle between his own beliefs and the work that he was doing for the American government.

One of many people’s biggest concerns going into this film is the intimidating factor of having to sit through a three-hour movie. At no point in the film was I disinterested or was it not holding my attention. It felt somewhat long by the end, but every single moment of that film was worth watching. One of the most interesting aspects of the film was Christopher Nolan’s use of sound, baiting the audience with a silence so deafening and eerie, followed by a crescendo that blasted throughout the theatre. The viewers are unaware of its significance until midway through the movie when the bomb drops for the first time as it’s being tested.

The only qualms I had with the film were its representation of communism, and not explaining its merits and its downfalls in tandem, as well as its usage of Emily Blunt’s and Florence Pugh’s characters. As an example, Oppenheimer’s mistress played by Florence Pugh, takes her life at the end of the film, and in the way it is presented it is perceived that Oppenheimer was at fault for essentially ghosting her. However, the information was also given earlier in the film that she was dealing with serious mental health issues as well.

Oppenheimer could have been part of the issue, but he was not the whole. By making this narrative choice, it does a disservice to Florence Pugh’s character using her only as a plot device rather than maintaining her character’s independent motives. Some also have made the argument that the movie was too long, with the climax of the bomb being tested taking place in the middle of the film, leaving the resolution to play out over an hour. I was enthralled by every second of the film, although, the message of the film could have been accomplished in about two to two and a half hours.

By Dillin Bett