Can a man like J. Robert Oppenheimer single-handedly change a war, a nation, or the entire world, or is there more to discover in this excellent biographical movie from 2023?
It is not a one-man show because, as we shall see, around him revolve the fates of dozens of other men and women, leading America to be the first atomic power in human history.
This biography begins with young Robert, a troubled and dissatisfied student, until he decides to devote himself entirely to developing research in quantum mechanics.
A choice that led to his graduation from Harvard opened his career to a series of discoveries in the field of physics, and then he began teaching amid the admiration and respect of colleagues and students.
No one was surprised when the United States government appointed him head of the Manhattan Project in 1942, which aimed to develop the first atomic bomb, as he was the most significant scientific exponent at the time.
Oppenheimer quickly realized that this was not going to be an ordinary research but rather an actual race against the Nazis and the Soviet Union, both committed to the same goal.
As if that were not enough, the U.S. government repeatedly put obstacles in the way of the scientists team, many of whom were of communist ideology and thus bitter enemies of the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy commission.
Nevertheless, Oppenheimer and his people succeeded amidst a thousand difficulties in building the bomb in the secret laboratory at Los Alamos, leading America to end the war by dropping two atomic bombs on Japan.
However, for the celebrated scientist, that moment marks the beginning of another war of revenge by all the enemies accumulated in his career, who are willing to do anything to ruin his life and reputation.
So good and yet can still do better
You can say anything about Christopher Nolan, whether you admire his movies or not, yet he is undoubtedly a highly successful director, which he proved once again in 2023 with this highly anticipated biopic on Oppenheimer.
I find the first two hours perfect, especially the whole first part about the scientist’s youth and the birth and conclusion of the Manhattan Project.
Nolan makes the most of his talent by staging a thrilling spectacle about the scientific discoveries of those years, along with the great fear over the Nazi rise to power and early World War II.
Subsequently, I cannot say the same for the part following the war end and the beginning of the hostility of (a part of) the government and scientific authorities against Oppenheimer.
Nolan devoted a lot of time to the private hearing before the members of the Atomic Energy Commission, led by Lewis Strauss as chairman, who had several scores to settle against the scientist.
Too much time passes on this part, with many repetitions of the same concepts, and some characters appear for an inordinately long time over of their importance in the political/scientific battle that took place in those days.
I don’t want to say that the director (and also screenwriter) did anything fundamentally wrong, but I often find myself watching some of his movies like Inception or Tenet, for example, and wondering if they wouldn’t be better if they were a half-hour shorter.
Sometimes, I wish Nolan was much more basic, mainly because his best quality is precisely editing, cutting out the non-essential, and emphasizing the real meaning of what he wants to narrate.
Still, he remains a director for whom I have infinite admiration, and I always look forward with excitement to anything new he brings to the cinema.
Future faces of the Academy Award winner?
Having discussed the plot and direction, I now want to mention the excellent cast that Nolan is guiding to the glory of another big hit at the movies, and who knows, maybe even at the Oscars.
Let’s start, of course, with the lead performer, Cillian Murphy, one of my all-time favorites and an actor with great versatility in playing roles as diverse as action espionage in Anna, survival horror in A Quiet Place 2, or more authorial work such as Free Fire or The Party; to mention some movies you can find among my articles.
In the role of Oppenheimer, Murphy has ample space and time to emphasize a jaw-dropping performance that places him at the top among all actors in every movie in 2023.
He struggles with uncertainty and fear in scientific research as well as in his private life, which we see especially in the difference between Emily Blunt, Oppenheimer’s wife, and Florence Pugh, who is instead his long-suffering lover Jean Tatlock.
Two women bound by communist ideology and an introverted, quirky character, although the unfortunate Jean will follow her obsession into a self-destructive vortex ending in suicide.
Turning to the male cast, besides the excellent Murphy, I also want to highlight Matt Damon‘s solid performance as General Leslie Groves, whose dialogues with Oppenheimer are equally scary and funny.
While Damon may still be a bit young for this role, he does his job just as perfectly as Robert Downey Jr., who opens one of the early scenes playing Lewis Strauss.
A man whose career soars with the destruction of Oppenheimer’s reputation, although he later also suffers the punishment of resentment toward all the scientists he ostracized, such as Albert Einstein, who is played here (briefly but effectively) by actor Tom Conti.