An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Dan Webster reviews "Oppenheimer"


In the year 1962, I was living on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. One evening what seemed like our entire Ewa Beach neighborhood had gathered in groups along our suburban street, hoping to see something that promised to be amazing. The U.S. government was doing nuclear testing on the Johnson Atoll, some 825 miles away, and we were told the light from the detonation, even at that distance, would be visible.

That announcement turned out to be a vast understatement. One second we were standing there, in the dark under a clear, star-filled sky. And the next, suddenly, the world lit up bright as day. One second the neighbors were all talking—as excited people tend to do—and the next, everyone stood motionless and mute. The moment was that awesome. And frightening.

The memory of that night came rushing back to me as I sat through a screening of Oppenheimer, writer-director Christopher Nolan’s film that tells the story of the man who oversaw the development of the atomic bomb. Using the 2005 nonfiction book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer as a guide, Nolan focuses mainly on the time just before Oppenheimer (played by the Irish actor Cillian Murphy) was enlisted to head the A-bomb project in Los Alamos through his sad and painful post-war disgrace.

Los Alamos, of course, is the remote area of New Mexico where Oppenheimer and hundreds of scientists, civilian workers, members of the military and their families worked in secret for the better part of two years. What spurred them on was the threat that German scientists were doing the same thing, and everyone knew, if they were successful, the danger that would pose.

The most dramatic part of Nolan’s film, in fact, is the half hour or so of its three-hour running time leading up to the actual test, when there was a chance—however remote—that the detonation would ignite the very atmosphere itself and destroy the Earth. Even though that clearly didn’t happen, Nolan manages to make the faint possibility feel real enough.

Then again, his ability to manipulate us should come as no surprise. Nolan has demonstrated his ample skills in such past films as Memento, The Dark Knight, Interstellar and Tenet. Much of what he puts on the screen in Oppenheimer fits his stylistic patterns, from the way he plays with chronology—throwing us back and forth in time—to switching between black-and-white and color sequences as a means of marking distinct time periods.

Yet even though Oppenheimer the film fulfills most of the demands of a biographical study, it is something else as well. Or actually a couple of things. One is a mystery story of how Oppenheimer—once so popular he made the cover of Time magazine—ended up losing his security clearance and being relegated to relative insignificance. The other is a portrait of government sleaze, in this case a miasma of thwarted ambition and a desire for revenge.

Whatever else it is, though, Nolan’s film is no hagiography. Oppenheimer is shown with all his personal warts, which include his attempts to poison a bullying university tutor, his inveterate womanizing, his failures as a parent, all of which are seemingly secondary to the ongoing torment that he felt when facing the existential quandary posed by the apparently insoluble contradictions of quantum mechanics.

As such, Murphy is the perfect casting choice. Anyone who has seen the British crime series Peaky Blinders knows how intense Murphy can be, and that skill serves him well here. Nolan surrounds him with an able supporting cast, including several familiar faces, from Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty to Robert Downey Jr. as the former head of the Atomic Energy Commission Lewis Strauss, Matt Damon as Gen. Leslie Groves to Florence Pugh as Oppenheimer’s on-again, off-again lover Jean Tatlock. Even Oscar winners such as Casey Affleck, Rami Malek and Kenneth Branagh play small roles.

If there is one aspect to Oppenheimer that can be criticized it’s composer Ludwig Goransson’s intrusive musical score, which makes some of the dialogue—at least when rendered in Dolby—hard to understand. Even that, though, can’t mask the power of what Nolan has put on the screen, a power that—even several decades later—effectively captures the moment that, one starlit night, struck my Hawaiian neighbors, and me, speechless with horror.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.


Movies 101 host Dan Webster is a senior film critic for Spokane Public Radio and a blogger for