top of page
  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz

Oppenheimer

One of the Best Films of the 21st Century


The key to any cinematic masterpiece is not simply making a film audiences are dying to see. The key to a cinematic masterpiece is to make a film audiences will be dying to see multiple times. Whether that stems from the level of entertainment found in the plot or a strong personal connection to the subject matter, the magic that comes from being in a large dark auditorium where the sound is booming and the visuals are intoxicating somehow keeps drawing you back. That’s why Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was so successful in 2008. People couldn’t get enough of it. They just couldn’t help themselves.


Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is having the exact same outcome. I can sense it. Having seen it twice now with plans for a third viewing, I can practically sniff out who in the audience is about to be bewitched by Nolan’s magic and who his spell has already taken effect on.


“Once Upon A Time” is how fairy tales usually start. Oppenheimer starts immediately as though your hand is taken by someone guiding you to various rooms in a labyrinth. It is perhaps 30 minutes in that Cillian Murphy delivers those famous words.


“Now I Am Become Death, The Destroyer Of Worlds.”


Thus officially begins Christopher Nolan’s astonishing furiously political fairytale about the wizard who gave humans the power to destroy themselves only to be cast away in exile for trying to make aware, the potential harm of his creation. Oppenheimer is absolutely a fairytale. It is also a parable for our most divided of eras and perhaps one final plea for mercy before it’s finally too late and the sun sets on humanity for the last time.


In the midst of WWII, brilliant physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) is appointed by Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves Jr. (Matt Damon) to work on the top-secret Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer and a team of loyal scientists spend years developing and designing the atomic bomb. Their work comes to fruition on July 16 1945 as they witness the world’s first nuclear explosion, forever changing the course of history.


Lewis Strauss (Robert Downy Jr.), chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, attempts to destroy Oppenheimer’s credibility as a result of his personal vendetta towards him for his association with members of the communist party, his public dismissing of Strauss’s concerns regarding the export of radioisotopes and (Per Strauss’s false belief) badmouthing him to Albert Einstein.


Already falling apart inside from his naivety in his manufacturing of the bomb and his fear of the continued devastation it will cause, Oppenheimer’s world cracks open and he slowly and painfully falls apart as he is politically slaughtered by a kangaroo court who not only goes after him but those loyal to him during the Manhattan Project, his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), his brother Frank (Dylan Arnold) and his deceased mistress Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh).


As is the case in all of Nolan’s films, Oppenheimer has a dedicated cast that stands together so proudly and passionately committed to servicing the importance of the story they are telling. Nolan has so much love inside of him that he wants to honor those he admires in his work, whether it be fictional or historically based. This love always shows. It’s always present and the cast recognizes Nolan’s sincerity and shares it. It is very apparent that Nolan only works with true team players.


Not that Oppenheimer doesn’t have certain performances that truly stand out. For me personally, Downy Jr. Murphy, and Pugh are the three keys in Nolan’s silver chain that unlocks the film’s epicenter. Downy Jr. perfectly captures Stauss’s vindictiveness and jealousy. He is that all too common man who's never left the society in which we live. The way his face becomes pale white with blinding rage, we know the white isn’t ONLY from the occasional black and white cinematography. Downy Jr. has done very well in very mainstream films but Oppenheimer is a very open window for audiences and the industry to recognize the extent of his talent. May he be cast in similar bodies of art.


The whole cast has agreed that they were often distracted on set because of Murphy’s “Ocean Eyes'”. He does have them and they really do SPARKLE. Psychologically, anyway. He really IS the wizard and fairy godmother of Nolan’s fairytale. His portrayal of Oppenhemer’s love, work ethic, pride, grief, and trauma hasn’t a single false moment. The way he holds his hand to his mouth in distress and the slowness in which his fine shoes touch the ground as he walks to the front of an applauding audience as though he’s balancing a stack of books on his head. His relationship with noise changes him. It breaks him and Murphy devours that authenticity in a manner I’ve never seen before. Downy Jr. has referred to Murphy’s commitment to the film as “I’ve never witnessed a greater sacrifice by a leading actor.”


Florence Pugh is an artist I’ve adored almost religiously since the mid to late 2010s. She took every inch of my attention and then some with her work in Lady Macbeth, Midsommar, The Little Drummer Girl, Little Women, and The Wonder. I remember watching her sob hysterically, choke and cough all at once, not even ten minutes into Midsommar. My jaw was on the ground.


She continues to deliver performances that carry the essence and complexities of the human soul. Her work in Oppenheimer is no exception. She’s in the film very briefly but she’s one of the most memorable attributes. Like Oppenheimer, Tatlock has such a rare brilliance but is so consumed by fear. She’s a genius woman living in a time when it wasn’t safe to be a genius woman and very few of them got their due.

Someone with Tatlock’s ambitions, self-certainty and sexual confidence could never be seen as someone capable of taking their own life, a life that’s barely begun. Sadly, it’s always whom we least expect and often ignore that end up checking out early.


The editing, cinematography, and music of Jennifer Lame, Hoyte van Hoytema, and Ludwig Goransson are bound to receive Oscar nominations, if not wins. Such rich detail in every thread of each of their crafts as though you as an audience are biting into a mango that is so ripe, you can hear the bite as your teeth lower into it.


I don’t need to pay any mind to what audiences will take away from Oppenheimer. This time, I truly don’t have to. So many are paying attention to it, it’s just come out, I’m sure it will remain in theaters for a LONG time and the genuine interest people are taking in this film (That Richard Roeper referred to as “One of the best films of the 21st century”) leaves me with a kind of cinematic AND political hope I haven’t felt in a long long time. Maybe we just might make it through after all.


MAYBE.

43 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page