Oscar nominated writer and director Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk) once again reaches into the annals history to entertain audiences with his take on the life story of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer, the film, is a modern cinematic achievement from the standpoint of practice effects, production design, cinematography, and hair and makeup.

Nolan’s script, which weaves multiple narratives together and jumps from decade to decade, is probably the weakest element in this Oscar-bound picture from Universal Studios. The film loses significant momentum following the race to achieve an atomic bomb and its high stakes test detonation in the desert.

Nolan’s decision to create a small scale courtroom drama for the third act — bouncing between J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) and his deposition to maintain his security clearance and the Senate confirmation hearing for Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) as commerce secretary.

Working as the chairman of America’s atomic energy commission in the 1950s, Strauss was a key figure in destroying physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s career, as the World War II hero was branded a Communist sympathizer and stripped of his security clearance.

Strauss faced an equally humiliating event, with his Senate confirmation failing to land the political figure his desired position in the film’s finale. Still… both events pale in comparison to the damage done by the atomic bomb and the emotional weight carried by its creator.

Setting aside the script critique, the performances of this cast and the incredible craftsmanship of the below the line talent make this one of the year’s best films.

Cillian Murphy is incredible as the titular character, delivering so much intensity and emotion from just his eyes. Murphy embodies the character across roughly fifty years of his life, following storylines with his Communist-supporting brother, his wife, his lover, various politicians, military officers and the antagonistic personality of Atomic Energy Commission member Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.).

Downey Jr. is also fantastic in his transformation, fully disappearing into Lewis Strauss and his carefully curated persona. Both actors are poised to earn acting nominations as the film continues to soar alongside Barbie at the box office.

Unlike Barbie, which excels with its female characterization in the film, Nolan’s script fails to offer anything of remotely intriguing for Emily Blunt or Florence Pugh. Playing Kitty Oppenheimer, Blunt languishes as an alcoholic and supporting figure in her husband’s life. Her moment to shine at the end of the film isn’t sufficient to overcome the two dimensional characterization throughout the first two and a half hours of its runtime.

Pugh as Jean Tatlock is a Communist party member and love interest for Oppenheimer, but he’s more intrigued by her beauty than her ideological beliefs. The intimate scenes in the film, one of which takes place in Kitty Oppenheimer’s drunken mind, feel forced and awkward.

Nolan is not known for his visual representation of intimacy on screen, and it feels out of place amid the time-weaving script. Nolan’s greatest strength continues to be his hiring of incredible artists as collaborators.

Production designer Ruth De Jong’s work on the film is immaculate, often creating an invisible character within the scenes captured by the camera. One of her seemingly impossible feats was building a replica of the White House’s Oval Office in a matter of days after the film lost a key location. With Gary Oldman’s shooting dates locked, there was no choice but to craft the set from scratch.

Director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema is truly gifted with his ability to capture practical and visual effects in camera, as opposed to relying on CGI which Nolan avoids at any cost. The film, in many ways, is an achievement on par with the cinematic achievement of Birdman, which went on to win best picture winner almost a decade ago.

The work of Department Head Hair Jaime Leigh McIntosh and Make-up artist Luisa Abel is truly astounding, creating decades of believable aging through their meticulous work. Alongside costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, they are able to visually cue the audience as Nolan weaves through decades of history in the life of Oppenheimer.

Having paused his collaboration with Oscar winning composer Hans Zimmer, Nolan is once again teaming with Oscar winning Composer Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther, The Mandalorian). Göransson’s work fits the film like a glove, and while not every cue can stick in one’s head like glue, Göransson creates two distinct tracks that are used throughout the film and they are nothing short of brilliant.

Nolan’s choice not to show the horrific destruction unleashed on Japan by Oppenheimer’s creation is a surprising choice, but there is a brilliance in closing the film with his conversation with Albert Einstein. The conversation, which was shrouded in mystery and seemingly triggered tension between Oppenheimer and Strauss, is revealed in the film’s final moments.

Oppenheimer asks Einstein if he recalls a prior conversation about the mathematical calculations that proved a small but real possibility that a chain reaction from detonating an atomic bomb could wind up destroying the entire world. “I remember it well,” Einstein replies. “What of it?”

Oppenheimer responds: “I believe we did.”

And with that line, Nolan may have his first Oscar.

Letter Grade: A-

About The Author

Founder, Awards Editor

Byron Burton is the Awards Editor and Chief Critic at Awards Focus and a National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Award winning journalist for his work at The Hollywood Reporter.

Byron is a voting member of the Television Academy, Critics Choice Association, and the Society of Composers & Lyricists (the SCL) for his work on Marvel's X-Men Apocalypse (2016). Working as a journalist and moderator, Byron hosts Emmy and Oscar panels for the major studios, featuring their Below The Line and Above The Line nominees (in partnership with their respective guilds).

Moderating highlights include Ingle Dodd's "Behind the Slate" Screening Series and their "Spotlight Live" event at the American Legion in Hollywood. Byron covered the six person panel for Universal's "NOPE" as well as panels for Hulu's "Pam & Tommy Lee" and "Welcome to Chippendales" and HBO Max's "Barry" and "Euphoria."

For songwriters and composers, Byron is a frequent moderator for panels with the Society of Composers and Lyricists (SCL) as well as The ArcLight's Hitting the High Note Oscar series.

Byron's panels range from FX's Fargo to Netflix's The Crown, The Queen's Gambit, The Witcher & Bridgerton; HBO Max's The Flight Attendant, Hacks, Succession, Insecure, & Lovecraft Country; Amazon Studios' The Legend of Vox Machina, Wild Cat, & Annette; and Apple TV+s Ted Lasso, Bad Sisters, and 5 Days at Memorial.

In February of 2020, Byron organized and hosted the Aiding Australia Initiative; launched to assist in the restoration and rehabilitation of Australia's wildlife (an estimated 3 billion animals killed or maimed and a landmass the size of Syria decimated).

Participating talent for Aiding Australia includes Robert Downey Jr., Michael Keaton, Jeremy Renner, Harrison Ford, Jim Carrey, Josh Brolin, Bryan Cranston, Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, JK Simmons, Tobey Maguire, Alfred Molina, James Franco, Danny Elfman, Tim Burton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Tim Allen, Colin Hay, Drew Struzan, and Michael Rosenbaum.

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