Oppenheimer (2024.11, Astonishing , Full )

Oppenheimer is an epic film that rewards the hard work required of the viewer. A full exploration of a man, physics, politics, and movie making. (5*)

Oppenheimer – Snapshot


Oppenheimer is an epic film telling the complicated tale of a complicated man dealing with complicated things.  It is a different way to develop a movie, sending the viewer through folds in space and time.  In the end, though it is immensely enriching and a cinematic achievement.  (5*)


Where to Watch:

Stream: Peacock

Rent/Buy:  Google/Prime/Apple/YouTube ($6)

Oppenheimer – The Oscar Buzz 

Oscar Nominations (13) / Oscar Wins (7) :

Best Picture WINNER

Director (Christopher Nolan) WINNER

Adapted Screenplay (Christopher Nolan)

Leading Actor (Cillian Murphy) WINNER

Supporting Actor (Robert Downey Jr.) WINNER

Supporting Actress (Emily Blunt)

Cinematography (Hoyt Van Hoytema) WINNER

Film Editing (Jennifer Lame) WINNER

Original Score (Ludwig Goransson) WINNER 

Sound (Burton/King/Rizzo/O’Connell)

Production Design (Ruth De Jong / Claire Kaufman) 

Costume Design (Ellen Mirojnick) 

Makeup&Hairstyling (Stacey/Coulier/Weston) 

With thirteen nominations, and six of them “major”,  Oppenheimer scores a 20 on my Oscar Quality Index (OQI), the highest of all 38 movies this year.  In fact, the film received the highest number of nominations in recent years, tied only with The Shape of Water.  In winning 7 Oscars it tied with Everything Everywhere All at Once and Gravity in recent years.  The only category it didn’t get a nomination for – that it possibly could have – was visual effects, and it made a good run at those anyway with elaborate, but practical efforts.  Like Poor Things, because it was nominated in both storytelling and technical categories, I expected the movie to be an excellent experience – and the reason I saved it for the last of the Big Picture nominees.  Director, and screenwriter, Christopher Nolan and his well-seasoned crew and cast, did a terrific job in delivering this year’s Best Picture winner.  This was the Oscar darling this year so we have a lot to talk about.

And about the Visual Effects:  Almost all the films nominated in that category these days are various levels and types of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI).  But you won’t see much, if any, of that in a Christopher Nolan film.  Nolan is a firm believer in what are called “practical effects” or imagery generated pretty much by hand.  So all of those visual images of the inside of atoms or of the explosion of the nuclear device at Trinity – none of that was computer generated, giving it a much more natural tone and style.  It has generally been true in Nolan films, and it may not win awards because it isn’t quite as flashy, but it does produce a more “human” level film. 

Like Poor Things, Oppenheimer was nominated in all three of the visual arts categories, Production Design, Costume Design, and Makeup & Hairstyling.  Poor Things rightfully won all three of those Oscars, but the work on Oppenheimer was noticeable and good.  Makeup, hairstyles, and costumes were more constrained in this film, seeking to replicate the historical period of World War II and the 1950s.  So, while all of those things were done well, I don’t see the same level of challenge in this film as in Poor Things where extreme effort went into producing an environment beyond imaginable.

But in Production Design, comparing Poor Things and Oppenheimer is almost like comparing apples and oranges.  Oppenheimer was filmed almost entirely on location at Berkeley, Chicago, Princeton, and Washington – Nolan took his camera to the real locations where many of these events occurred.  (Even Oppenheimer’s security clearance hearing was filmed in a small conference room, as in real life, packed with cast members and a big huge IMAX camera!). They did construct a town to look like the original at Los Alamos. (It was actually constructed a ways North of that at Abiquiu, but still in the Jemez mountains of New Mexico.). But they built the town to be as realistic as possible with full houses, not just fronts.  In that way, the production design challenges equaled some of what they did in Poor Things, but, again, the sets in Oppenheimer recreated real buildings, not a fantastical world.  

Despite losing the Sound Oscar to The Zone of Interest, the Sound team on Oppenheimer was exceptionally experienced.  Several members of the team had worked with Nolan on one or more of his earlier films (Inception, Interstellar, Dunkirk, or Tenet) and there are at least 8 Oscar wins and more than two dozen nominations among them.  One of the things I enjoyed about this film is how the dialogue for the next scene often starts before the previous scene footage ends, giving an interesting mixing of sight and sound.  The sounds of the actual explosion are, of course, outstanding and enhance the realism of the visuals.

Of course there is also the soundtrack.  Ludwig Goransson won the Oscar for his music for Oppenheimer.  This is his second win, the other being for Black Panther, and his third nomination.  Goransson is a relatively young Swedish composer and I’m sure we will hear more from him.  As a special treat, pay attention to the music early in the film where Neils Bohr asks Oppenheimer, a student, whether he can “hear the music” in the math behind atomic physics.  Goransson took more than three days to write that piece and it changes tempo 21 times.  I believe he was trying to communicate the immense complexity of what was going through Oppenheimer’s mind.

Oppenheimer won both of the critical film technical skills of cinematography and film editing.  Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema was previously nominated for the earlier Nolan film, Dunkirk.  While this is Film Editor Jennifer Lamé’s first nomination – and Win – she has worked on several  other Oscar-nominated films (see next section). Importantly both of them worked with Nolan on Tenet which shares a lot of editing and camera challenges with this movie.  The camera work on Oppenheimer was made extra difficult by the need to cart around the bulky and heavy IMAX camera.  Furthermore, the decision to shoot parts of it in black and white required that Kodak develop a special film for the IMAX camera in order to yield the same quality of presence on the huge IMAX screen.  The editing issues are substantial and are discussed further in my last section because I think the structure of this film is key to its understanding.

When Christopher Nolan starts casting a movie, actors almost phone him for the opportunity to be in one of his films.  For Oppenheimer, Nolan marshalled multiple A-list actors to fill supporting roles.  Gary Oldman,  Oscar winner for playing Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour, has just one important but short scene in this movie as President Harry Truman, the man who, ultimately, has no meaningful concept of what Oppenheimer was going through after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Rami Malek , who won the leading actor Oscar for playing Freddy Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody has one brief scene early in the film and then another very critical one articulating the scientific community’s respect for Oppenheimer’s ethical position towards the very end of the movie.  Florence Pugh, a young woman with a supporting actress nomination for Little Women plays Jean Tatlock, the communist party member whose relationship with Oppenheimer becomes the basis for his troubles with McCarthyism.  Kenneth Branagh, who has seven Oscar nominations and a win for writing the screenplay for Belfast, plays Neils Bohr the older physicist who is hugely responsible for pushing Oppenheimer in the theoretical direction that led to his successes and, towards the end of the film, arrives in Los Alamos to lend his own expertise to the Manhattan Project.  And finally, Matt Damon, who had a role in Nolan’s Interstellar,  has three Oscar nominations and won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for Good Will Hunting.  He plays Leslie Groves, the military head of the project and the person responsible for the project’s security and success – two often contradictory goals.  

But none of those actors received Oscar nominations for their work in this movie.  Emily Blunt, though, was nominated for supporting actress playing Kitty, Oppenheimer’s wife.  Blunt has a complex role as a woman who obviously loves her husband, and wants to support him leading what is referred to as  ‘the most delicate and important project in the history of humankind’, at the same time she isn’t allowed to know very much about it.  Nor does she fully understand her husband’s other allegiances.  And yet, she still shows a dreadful happiness when she is told to “take in the sheets!”  Blunt  played the title character in Mary Poppins Returns and was the courageous, but silent Mom, in A Quiet Place and its sequel.  Despite her respectable filmography, this was her first nomination.

Robert Downey Jr. won the Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Lewis Strauss.  Although we know Downey mostly as Tony Stark/Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he demonstrates much more precision and emotion in Oppenheimer as he plays an ambitious government official who is also very concerned about his own self-image.  Downey was previously nominated for his title role in Chaplin, but this is his first win.  Strauss is a complex and conflicted character and Downey clearly understood his personality dynamics.  As something of a foil to Oppenheimer, Downey did an unexpected and terrific performance.  Downey has said that Oppenheimer is the best film he’s ever been in and clearly his enthusiasm has infected his acting.

Of course the lead character in this film is J. Robert Oppenheimer himself, played by Irish actor Cillian Murphy and he won the Oscar for his work.  What helps make that unusual is that this is his first Oscar nomination and to go from never nominated to winning Leading Actor in one movie is very impressive.  Although this is Murphy’s first leading role, he has played parts in several of Nolan’s earlier films including The Dark Knight movies, Inception, and Dunkirk.  Besides looking uncannily like Oppenheimer himself, Murphy lost considerable weight to approximate his character’s physique.  It is said that Murphy attempted to absorb his understanding of Oppenheimer’s character by insulating himself from the other actors during filming, trying to capture in some way the isolation, challenge, and, quite possibly, the guilt, of Oppenheimer himself.

It takes actors to make characters convincing, but the driver of the story and the real arc of the film lies with the screenplay and the direction, both helmed by Christopher Nolan.  This is, ultimately, Nolan’s film and it is was his job to write a penetrating and intriguing script and pull all the pieces together under his direction.  He was rewarded with a nomination for his screenplay and an Oscar for his direction. Reportedly the crew had just three months to build the town of Los Alamos and the entire filming sequence was done in less than two months, an unheard of amount of time for a movie of this magnitude.  As in the Manhattan Project itself, it takes a skilled leader to pull off this kind of success.  Nolan has been to the Oscars before.  His second film, Memento, earned him an Original Screenplay nomination and introduced us to his fascination with flipping around in time and mental space.  He won a second Original Screenplay nomination for Inception where he played with the notion of injecting other agents into peoples dreams in order to influence their thoughts.  And in Dunkirk he was nominated for his directing talents in assembling and maintaining coherency in a massive project. 

In all of Nolan’s movies there is a continuing interest in the relationship between deep physics and the human psyche.  In Memento his main character is a guy who has no memory and he has to solve a problem by recreating events in reverse. Inception involves inserting ideas in someone’s dreams in order to change their behavior.  His characters in Interstellar navigate the universe through wormholes in order to save mankind.  Even in Dunkirk, ostensibly about World War II, he adopts a curious mechanism of looking at the events from three different perspectives of time.  Finally, in Tenet, Nolan creates the situation where time is reversed and the audience is subject to an unheard of experience where a particular scene makes as much sense in one direction of time as the other.  Time, in Tenet, becomes simply a way of observing changes in entropy – another critical concept in physics.

So Nolan knows a lot about physics and that infuses his script in Oppenheimer.  One of the defining elements of this film is how it periodically revisits certain scenes, each time either adding additional events, or viewing it from a different perspective.  And he mixes these slices of time and space up in the course of the film.  Sometimes you are cued in by the switch between color and black and white.  But often you are on your own by discerning clues based on clothing and settings.  With Oppenheimer Nolan has refined his understanding of space and time and how it can be used to create an effective film.  (More on that in my final section.)

(It should be noted that the screenplay is based on a book – which I have not read – by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.”  At 700+ pages, it is at least as dense as this movie.)

With all of these other nominations and wins, it isn’t surprising that Oppenheimer won Best Picture.  There is no question that this is a great movie.  Did it deserve the highest Oscar?  I’m uncertain and will return to that idea another time.

Oppenheimer – Related Movies

Tenet (Direction, Screenplay, Cinematography, Film Editing, Musical Score, Sound)

Interstellar (Direction, Screenplay, Damon, Cinematography, Sound, Makeup&Hairstyling)

Inception (Direction, Screenplay, Murphy, Sound, Makeup&Hairstyling)

Dunkirk (Direction, Screenplay, Murphy, Cinematography, Sound, Makeup&Hairstyling)

The Dark Knight/The Dark Knight Rises (Direction, Screenplay, Murphy, Sound)

Chaplin/MCU films (Downey Jr.)

Mary Poppins Returns/A Quiet Place/A Quiet Place II (Blunt)

Good Will Hunting/The Martian/Ford v. Ferrari/Invictus (Damon)

Little Women (19) (Pugh, Production Design)

Belfast (Branagh)

Bohemian Rhapsody (Malek)

Darkest Hour (Oldman)

Ad Astra (Cinematography)

Marriage Story/Blonde/Judas and the Black Messiah (Film Editing)

Manchester by the Sea (Film Editing, Production Design)

Maestro/The Sea Beast/King Richard/Spider-Man: No Way Home (Sound)

Black Panther/Black Panther: Wakanda Forever/Turning Red (Musical Score)

Maleficent: Princess of Evil/The Greatest Showman (Costumes)

Knives Out (Makeup&Hairstyling)

Oppenheimer – What Others Think

Perhaps the best indicator of what the viewing public thought of Oppenheimer is to look at its box office numbers.  Although Barbie was released on the same weekend (almost a year ago) the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon was supposedly an indicator of viewers returning to the movie theaters.  Barbie was the highest grossing film of the year,  but Oppenheimer still managed a worldwide gross of just under $1 Billion!.  That’s a great return on an investment of around $100 Million. On my two audience rating scales, counting nearly a million votes, Oppenheimer came in second of all 24 general interest films tied with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and just behind Godzilla Minus One.  Clearly the film was a hit with movie-goers.

This is a rare case where the critics agreed with the public.  On my critical ranking scales, Oppenheimer came in third behind only Past Lives and Zone of Interest.  Matt Zoller Seitz (RogerEbert) noted “The film dramatizes the life of Oppenheimer and other historically significant people in his orbit in an aesthetically daring way while also letting all the characters and all the events be used metaphorically and symbolically as well.”  Later he notes “the film’s furiously entropic tendencies complement the how’s and why’s of the individual and collective personality.” The FlickFilosopher, MaryAnn Johanson, observed “With human paradoxes at its nucleus, this is a riveting portrait, both intimate and epic of the self-involved men who think they make the world go round..and too often, tragically, do.” (If you can’t tell, Johanson is an ardent feminist).  Manohla Dargis (New York Times) gave the film a Critics Pick and noted “It’s a dense, event filled story that Nolan…has given a complex structure, which he parcels into revealing sections.”  The critics give huge credit to Nolan’s ability to use the structure of his film as a way to understanding not just particle physics but also the complex interplay of human personalities.  I will talk more about that in the final section.

Oppenheimer – Special Mention

Lewis Strauss – Everyone has a pretty good idea who J. Robert Oppenheimer was and his pivotal role in history.  But there is a second character, Lewis Strauss, that appears throughout the film and plays a significant and, at times, confusing role.  (Robert Downey Jr. won the supporting actor Oscar for his work portraying this man).  If you are at all like me, you may not know who this man was and why he was important enough to have such a big part in Oppenheimer.  Of course, by the end of the film, we understand more of why  and I am not going to spoil that part of the film.  But it helps to have a bit more basic background of the history of this man going into the film.

Strauss was born in West Virginia to Jewish emigrants who were successfully involved in a wholesale shoe business.  He developed much of his knowledge studying physics by reading textbooks and, being very smart, he was expected to be the valedictorian in his high school class.  His plans got derailed when he developed typhoid fever and he was unable to graduate.  After recovering, his family’s business ran into trouble during the 1913 Recession and he dropped out of school to work there.  He was obviously disappointed that his plans did not materialize and likely harbored ongoing disappointment.  And, in fact, he never did attend college.

He turned to government service, joining the Hoover administration in 1917.  Using his political contacts he rose through several administrative agencies, then spent time in New York City in investment banking, and developing considerable wealth, becoming an example of the “self-made man,” and a pillar of conservative Republicanism.  It was in New York that he served in multiple Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee.  He was active in raising political awareness of Hitler’s anti-Jewish campaigns and worked to support Jews emigrating from Germany.  

Reviving his childhood interests, and reacting to his parent’s deaths from cancer, he also became involved in supporting and meeting physicists involved in radiation and research into sub-atomic structure.  That involvement, coupled with his contributions to the Hoover administration, got him appointed by Truman in 1947 to a seat on the e Atomic Energy Commission, newly formed to transfer the administration of atomic research from the U.S. Army to civilian control.  As a member, he was constantly arguing that other countries, especially the Soviet Union, would be doing their own research into becoming a nuclear power.  He also supported ongoing and rapid development of nuclear weapons, including the hydrogen bomb, and was a leading proponent of Cold War ideology.

Oppenheimer, after the war, chaired the General Advisory Committee, a group of scientists assembled to specifically advise the AEC on the science behind atomic energy and weapons.  Since Oppenheimer had developed intensely negative feelings about nuclear weapons, he and Strauss butted heads often.  There is a scene in the movie where Oppenheimer mocks Strauss at a public hearing in 1949 – that exchange sets the tone for what follows in their relationship.

As can be expected, all these psychological and political issues and events combine to influence how science proceeds.  And that may be one of the strongest points of Nolan’s Oppenheimer.  Regardless of how objective scientists think they are, they do not operate in a political or social vacuum.

Oppenheimer – Michael’s Moments

It seems that the pandemic changed movies in substantial ways.  For one, the necessity to avoid contagion in a crowded movie theater, meant people became much more comfortable watching movies in the privacy of their homes.    Coupled with the rise of the internet, the demand to stream movies, at a time and place the viewer chooses, has quite possibly put movie theaters in their graves.  

It seems to have had an effect in other ways.  Many of our best filmmakers were forced, more or less, into a kind of hibernation during the pandemic, unable to assemble their large teams in close proximity without extra, often inhibiting, efforts necessary to minimize infection.  But for many of those filmmakers, it seems that maybe it allowed them to reflect a bit more on their craft and their ideas for their next film, producing epic efforts that refine their best ideas and techniques.  Yorgos Lanthimos stewed on many of the themes he initiated in The Favourite and delivered Poor Things, my favorite film of the year.  Jonathon Glazer this year tackled the horror of Nazi concentration camps in the well done The Zone of Interest.  Alejandro Inarritu came back and gave us his own personal reflection on the meaning of his filmmaking in Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths.  All of these films, and many more, reflected complex thought on exactly what the filmmaker wanted to say and how he wanted to say it.  Some of those efforts, of course, didn’t work.  My complaint about Bardo… was that it was just “too damn long” – sometimes watching someone gaze at their navel that long just saps the energy out of you.  

Oppenheimer is also an epic film.  At exactly 3 hours long, it is not an easy view.  The question for many may be whether it is worth the investment in time and mental energy. Part of the problem, or part of the enjoyment, of this film is the sheer amount of complexity.  It has a huge cast and covers a time span from the 1920s to 1959.  Based on a 700-page book, Oppenheimer probably captures the essence of the biography of the man and the significance of what he did.  It is a hugely complicated story of personal, social, and cultural changes that fold into each other so that boundaries are confused and the emotions are in flux.  Just look at the cast list to see the number of characters in this film – and all of them contribute to the message.

Adding to that complexity is the fact that it focuses on physics and not just the normal, everyday physics of levers and pulleys, but the unseen dimension inside the atom itself – the particles, waves, and energies that operate there under seemingly unknown principles.  But when physicists themselves have a hard time explaining the interior of quantum physics, do we really expect Christopher Nolan’s film to successfully do that?  Nolan uses intriguing visuals to simulate Oppenheimer’s visions of how atomic forces work, but they are only metaphorically accurate because, honestly, we just don’t know.  Quantum physics has, 100 years later, gone in even stranger directions with entanglement and the fusing of space and time.  None of this is surprising, of course, since Nolan has been playing with notions of time and space and their impact on the human mind in most of his films – Memento, Inception, Interstellar, Dunkirk, and Tenet.

But Nolan doesn’t want to give us a straightforward essay on physics and chronological development of a story.  Instead he wants to combine them into a new way of understanding.  You have to pay explicit attention to the settings and costumes of each scene to understand when and where it is occurring.  He moves around in time, jumping backwards and then forwards, as easily as he moves from Princeton to Berkeley to Chicago and, of course, Los Alamos.  Several events are replayed multiple times, each one being a different perspective or a view with additional information.  You think you are seeing something you’ve seen before, but you aren’t.  (There is an implicit reference to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in that technique…)

Furthermore, Nolan has a unique way of communicating the point of view.  The story is told, almost in its entirety, from the viewpoint of its central character.  We see events unfold the way he sees them.  Those scenes are in color.  But there are also multiple scenes filmed in high-contrast black and white.  Those scenes are the “objective” scenes, told from the perspective of someone else – Lewis Strauss.  Nolan gives us clues to help us keep things straight, but you still have to work at it.

Usually, when the viewer has to work so hard to appreciate a film, I don’t like it – movies are supposed to be fun, not work.  And, often, I argue that if you have to watch a movie, especially a three hour movie like Oppenheimer twice, then the filmmaker has failed.  But I’m not so sure this time.  This is an epic film and one that will go down in history, just like the man and the event it memorializes.  If you haven’t seen it, consider doing it twice.  If you have, see it again.  This is a terrific film and, once again (5*).

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