Before I launch into – spoiler alert – a rave review for what I consider to be the best film of 2023 (sorry Barbie), I want to say right up front that I am a huge Christopher Nolan fan. I respect Nolan immensely as a director and writer, I find his movies to be epic creations. I love Memento and the Batman trilogy and appreciate the visceral power of Dunkirk, and the dazzling Inception continues to amaze me and Intersteller left me spellbound. Tenet was a big hit for me, too, so inspired by all the hype for Oppenheimer, I went into the IMAX screening this past summer with great anticipation, Excited of how this massive epic about the man who spearheaded the development of the atomic bomb would hit me.
To say Oppenheimer blew me away would be not only a bad pun and tired cliché but also a gross understatement. Nolan outdoes himself, crafting an ambitious, innovative, and beautifully constructed film that absorbed me from the get-go and held me spellbound for three solid hours. (I can’t recall a more enriching cinematic experience over the past decade.) Intelligent, intricate, thought-provoking, emotional, visually stunning, and brimming with potent performances, Oppenheimer is the complete cinematic package, a movie that satisfies on multiple levels and demands repeat viewings to absorb all the nuances. Of course, the big bang that occurs about two-thirds of the way through is the film’s central component, but it’s the small, intimate moments that reverberate the loudest and make this movie so memorable.
Oppenheimer isn’t just a biopic about an arrogant genius who’s driven by ambition, wracked by demons, and tortured by guilt. That would be enough. But Nolan goes further. The most fascinating parts of Oppenheimer actually occur after the bomb goes off. The repercussions and fallout (and I’m not talking about radiation) resonate so much more strongly than the intrigue surrounding the weapon’s development. Yes, this is a tale about scientific breakthroughs, crossing dangerous boundaries, grappling with weighty moral issues (like the potential destruction of mankind), and creating a beast that can’t be controlled, but more importantly, it’s about political persecution, unbridled ego, and the petty jealousies and insecurities that fuel small-minded men and inspire them to destroy the lives of others.
The bomb is the elephant in the room, but the crux of Oppenheimer is the bitter conflict between J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) and government official Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). As the film opens, both men face critical trials that will ultimately scrape away their smug veneers and expose their faults, frailties, and carefully guarded secrets. Oppenheimer meekly battles a biased group of political operatives seeking to revoke his security clearance due to his prior association with the Communist party, while Strauss (pronounced Stroz), President Eisenhower’s nominee for Secretary of Commerce, must endure the probing questions of a Senate confirmation committee to secure his crowning career achievement. Nolan the writer, who based his screenplay on the book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, deftly and lyrically tells their parallel and intertwining tales, while Nolan the director keeps their stories distinct by filming Oppenheimer’s perspective in color and Strauss’s in black-and-white. The device may be off-putting at first, but it’s a stroke of genius that not only helps simplify the challenging narrative structure, which continually jumps forward and backward in time, but also adds even more style to an already visually arresting film.
One character calls Oppenheimer “a dilettante, a womanizer, a suspected Communist, unstable, theatrical, egotistical, neurotic,” and that’s all true, but he also possessed one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century. Other films like A Beautiful Mind and The Imitation Game have explored such brilliance and shown it to be a burden and a curse. Oppenheimer treads similar territory but on a larger scale and broader canvas. The stakes are higher here and some of the film’s themes strongly resonate in our current social climate. We can relate to a world in crisis that’s hurtling toward chaos and possible destruction, where political enemies are targeted and attacked. And with the dawn of Artificial Intelligence, we now have our own debate about a new technology that can potentially threaten human existence.
Oppenheimer asks important questions: How far do we take science and how do we deal with the consequences of what we unleash? One of the film’s most powerful scenes shows a shell-shocked Oppenheimer addressing his colleagues after the A-bomb test. As he delivers his remarks, we see how the weight of what his team has produced and the devastation it will soon deliver hit him with almost the same force as the world-changing detonation he just witnessed. That detonation, the lead-up to which instills palpable dread, fear, and uncertainty despite the fact there’s no mystery about the test’s success, is breathtakingly depicted. I won’t spoil it, but it’s just one more example of Nolan’s brilliance. He leads us down a well-worn path, then rips the rug out from under us. It’s tough to creatively depict a seminal event, especially one as monumental as this, but Nolan finds a way to combine artistry with the sobering gravity and sheer awe of the moment.
While I often enjoy seeing films with star-studded casts, sometimes the plethora of high-profile personalities can be distracting and take me out of the movie. “Oh, there’s so-and-so. Wow, I didn’t know he/she was in this! What a great cameo!” I had none of those feelings here. Yes, the initial glimmer of recognition causes a spark, but the roles are so well cast, the actors disappear inside them. The list of luminaries in Oppenheimer is large. In addition to Murphy and Downey, there’s Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Kenneth Branagh, Rami Malek, Casey Affleck, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Tom Conti, Matthew Modine, Tony Goldwyn, and others. All of them nail their parts (though Pugh is saddled with a sketchily drawn role), but Murphy and Downey shine the brightest. Both men deserve Oscars for their finely etched portrayals of complex, fascinating, and deeply flawed men who scale massive heights, but must live with the consequences of their deeds and misdeeds. Murphy is riveting throughout, never striking a sour note, and Downey is a revelation. After far too many Marvel movies, he reminds us what a terrific actor he can be when given the opportunity to sink his teeth into a juicy part.
Oppenheimer isn’t perfect. Some of the story’s time shifts can be confusing and with so many characters popping in and out of the story – often for only a few fleeting moments – remembering all the names and how they relate to the narrative can be a challenge. Like almost every biopic, there are historical inaccuracies and liberties taken with facts for dramatic effect. The pivotal exchange between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein upon which much of the story hinges is complete invention, but it’s nevertheless an inspired device to set up the division between Strauss and Oppenheimer and define the finer points of Strauss’ character.
Nolan bites off a lot here, but never more than he can chew. Yes, Oppenheimer is long, but unlike its fellow 2023 epics Killers of the Flower Moon and Napoleon, it doesn’t feel long. The pacing has a lovely ebb and flow as it mixes massive scope with searing drama, bits of humor, and a whole lotta visual stimuli. With insight, deep commitment, and tremendous care, Nolan has made a movie for history buffs, science nerds, political junkies, and – most importantly – movie fans. Oppenheimer is what cinema is all about. I Dug in and enjoyed it.
The video presentation of the 4K disc is flawless. Sound will shake your house and certainly give your system a true workout. The 1080p Blu-ray is certainly acceptable, but definitely a big step down from the exceptional 4K rendering. Flatter, duller, and a bit murkier, Oppenheimer on Blu-ray keeps the viewer at arm’s length. When I ejected the Blu-ray and went back to 4K, I felt as if I was looking at a totally different movie. The 4K disc is reference-quality stuff and anyone who enjoyed Oppenheimer in any theatrical format will be dazzled by this A-plus presentation.
The bonus featurettes are housed on a separate Blu Ray and they are aplenty. Included are all teasers and trailers. So much to delve into, that you could spend time on the bonus disc as much as the length of the film!
2023’s best film is a slam-dunk on 4K UHD. This epic portrait of both a controversial scientist and turbulent era in American history is enlightening, entertaining, and exquisitely mounted by a master craftsman at the very top of his game. With a breathtaking HDR transfer, potent audio, and hours of supplements, Oppenheimer demands a spot on every movie-lover’s shelf. Must Own. Film ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Film Extras ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (out of five stars)