If you’re looking for a feel-good summer popcorn flick, then Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is not that movie. What it is, however, is a stunning, morally complicated biopic about the man behind the creation of the atomic bomb, which forever changed our world and the way we look at war.
Christopher Nolan is one of Hollywood’s most reliable and consistent directors. He crafts each film very carefully, and Oppenheimer is no exception. While Oppenheimer is unlike any movie Nolan has ever made, it is also very much a Christopher Nolan film, if that makes sense. The cinematography and sound design are incredible, and Nolan insisted on setting off real explosives vs. using CGI, because of course he did.
J. Robert Oppenheimer was a brilliant but deeply flawed man. His actions portrayed in the film are not always sympathetic, but Nolan shows him as distinctly human, pragmatic but not unfeeling, and haunted by the results of his research. Cillian Murphy turns in an amazing performance that will no doubt be given lots of recognition come awards season.
You’ll find so many famous faces in this film that it would take many paragraphs to list them all. However, a standout for me was Robert Downey Jr., playing a more restrained role as the film’s antagonist, Lewis Strauss. As much as I love RDJ in the Marvel movies, it’s nice to see him in a very different type of role here. Matt Damon also was excellent as Lieutenant General Leslie Groves.
Oppenheimer is long – clocking in at 3 full hours – a runtime that almost feels too indulgent. Personally, I believe the perfect movie runtime is somewhere between two to two and a half hours, and Nolan probably could have done some trimming here. However, I will say that I never felt bored or antsy while watching this movie, and I found the film’s three acts compelling.
This is a film that doesn’t allow you to simply sit in the theater and be entertained. It asks you to grapple with the complex moral issues it raises, providing more ethical questions than it answers. It’s filled with existential dread as Oppenheimer realizes what sort of monster he’s created. Even though he was part of a many-person team authorized by his government to develop this weapon, and he was by no means the sole bearer of responsibility, his role in the creation of the bomb weighs heavily on him.
This film does not definitively answer the moral debate surrounding the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Was the U.S. justified in developing an atomic bomb during World War II? Did the U.S. need an atomic bomb – as morally reprehensible as such a horrific device is – to counter the Nazis’ own nuclear weapon development efforts? Should the bomb have been dropped on a military target rather than a civilian one? Did dropping the bomb truly save more lives in the long run by ending the war quickly?
After watching the movie, I took the time to read an article put together by BBC News back in 2020, called “Can nuclear war be morally justified?” It’s not an easy read, and I appreciated that the article came with a warning about some of its difficult content. If you’ve seen Oppenheimer, I recommend reading through it and wrestling with the questions it raises. I didn’t cry while watching the movie, but I did while reading this article.
Something that Oppenheimer really drives home is that even though the atomic bomb was designed to be the weapon to end all wars, it did not bring the sort of peace Oppenheimer himself had hoped for. After World War II came the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia, and the pressure was on to create bigger and more powerful bombs. The threat of world-ending nuclear war still hangs over us today.
Oppenheimer is more than just a surface-level biopic – it is both a horror film and a tragedy, and an important film that deserves to be seen and discussed. The past cannot be changed, but Oppenheimer contains a warning for the future we would be wise to heed.