Our review of “Oppenheimer”, by Christopher Nolan: this biopic of the “father of the atomic bomb” with Cillian Murphy is his most successful film

Nothing like it in Oppenheimer which should reconcile the public with Nolan. This biopic is, in our opinion, his best film: the most successful, the best written, the most relevant, all the more in the light of the geopolitical issues present, from Ukraine to the noise of boots at the gates of Taiwan. Nothing free here, everything makes sense.

The fear of the Nazis

In 1964, Stanley Kubrick delivered his fierce satire on the balance of terror: Dr Strangelove or how I learned not to worry anymore and to love the bomb. The model of doctor Strangelove (Strangelove in VO) of the film, embodied by Peter Sellers, was doctor J. Robert Oppenheimer, caricatured as a German scientist, with force azent gutural and untimely Nazi salute.

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Oppenheimer, although of German descent, was born in the United States. A Jew, he abhorred the Nazis. It was the fear of these that led him to silence his conscience to design the first atomic bomb. It will not be used against Nazis but against Japanese civilians. If Oppenheimer had any sympathies deemed guilty, it was in favor of communism.

Ten years before Kubrick’s film, in 1954, Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) confronts members of the United States Atomic Energy Commission. They must decide on the renewal of his security clearance.

Cillian Murphy in Chrisopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. ©Universal Pictures

A hero suspected of espionage

The “father of the atomic bomb”, celebrated as a national hero in 1945, is suspected of complicity in espionage for the benefit of the new Soviet enemy. His wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), General Groves (Matt Damon), his military supervisor during the war, are heard. It will be about the communist friendships of the pre-war scientist and his mistress, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh).

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Oppenheimer’s hearing in 1954 was superimposed on that, in the Senate, of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr. who recalled that he could play something other than Iron Man), chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. In 1958, he sought the post of Secretary of State for Commerce. Between the two, is inserted the journey of Oppenheimer, from brilliant student ill at ease to master builder of the first two atomic bombs in history.

Oppenheimer by Christopher Nolan.
Robert Downey Jr as Lewis Strauss in Chrisopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. ©Universal Pictures

A sustained plot

Christopher Nolan adapts the book by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus. The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. On paper, the story is linear, rigorous, hyper-detailed, and therefore sometimes tedious to follow.

On screen, Christopher Nolan converts the complex web of many protagonists into a sustained, captivating plot. He punctuates it with one of his favorite springs: the race against time (his fans will find his favorite plan of the countdown). He clearly tackles ethical, moral, political and philosophical questions based on Oppenheimer’s dilemmas.

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In the midst of ever more regressive blockbusters, Nolan dares to set the cinema bar a few notches higher. It imposes constant attention on the viewer. No scene is trivial. Every dialogue makes sense.

The film becomes a cinematographic demonstration of quantum physics, dear to Oppenheimer. At the microscopic scale, each scene has its individual meaning, a function that escapes at first. On a macroscopic scale, their assembly forges the rhythm of the film, its tessitura, its fundamental meaning.

Oppenheimer by Christopher Nolan.
Florence Pugh and Cillian Murphy in Chrisopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. ©Universal Pictures

Cillian Murphy’s performance

Cillian Murphy in the title role composes such a complex Oppenheimer, too free electron, unfathomable figure. His visionary genius is suggested by a few (very successful) stylistic effects which materialize on screen his vision of the quantum world (his first specialty). They take a more fatal turn, when the scientist perceives all the destructive potential of the released forces.

Nolan keeps Hiroshima and Nagasaki at a distance. This choice will no doubt be reproached to him, especially since he opposes scenes of jubilation, outrageous in view of the human toll of the bombings of August 6 and 9, 1945. By remaining on the purely American point of view of events, Nolan exposes the blindness of warlike patriotism, the danger of compartmentalization.

Oppenheimer by Christopher Nolan.
Matt Damon plays General Groves in Chrisopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. ©Universal Pictures

Oppenheimer’s Rosebud

From Citizen Kane of Orson Welles, life stories, whether fictional or authentic, have their rosebud : the enigma that conceals the key to the personality of the central figure. For Oppenheimer, there is the myth of Prometheus, which gives its English title to the book by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.

Like the mythological hero, the scientist descended the sacred fire from Olympus. As punishment, he was nailed to a mountain, condemned to have his liver devoured by an eagle for eternity. The eagle of Zeus becomes the symbol of the United States and of a unilateral vision of patriotism.

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Oppenheimer learned to love the bomb, before worrying about it. Albert Einstein, who had alerted President Franklin Roosevelt to the risk of seeing the Nazis build an atomic bomb, refused to take part in its design. He delivers to Oppenheimer the ultimate Rosebud of this Faustian drama, a message in the form of a curse.

Oppenheimer From and written by Christopher Nolan. With Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Matt Damon,… 3h

stars Arts Libre cinema
stars Arts Libre cinema ©LLB

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Our review of “Oppenheimer”, by Christopher Nolan: this biopic of the “father of the atomic bomb” with Cillian Murphy is his most successful film