The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer's role in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II.
For much of its running time, Oppenheimer does a good job with the ambiguities of its protagonist’s relationship to the commonplace communism of his intellectual milieu. [But] the ending trades away some of this ambiguity for a more conventional anti-McCarthyite narrative, in which Oppenheimer was simply martyred by know-nothings rather than bringing his political troubles on himself. […] The portions showing Strauss’s Senate-hearing comeuppance have the feeling of a dutiful liberal movie about the 1950s — all obvious heroes and right-wing villains, no political complexity allowed. Then, even if you share this political perspective, the deeper problem is that the drama around Oppenheimer’s own security clearance, to say nothing of another character’s nomination to a second-tier cabinet post, is incommensurate with the existential scale of the atomic bomb itself. So the concluding act’s focus on bureaucratic conflicts can’t help feeling like a dramatic falling-off for a movie that had built so brilliantly to the apocalyptic. I care about the bomb and the atomic age; I don’t really care about Lewis Strauss’s confirmation, and ending a movie about the former with a dramatic reenactment of the latter seems like a pointless detour from what made Oppenheimer worth making in the first place.
— Ross Douthat (National Review)
The all-star nature of Oppenheimer, which features dozens of famous or familiar actors orbiting Cillian Murphy in the title role, is part and parcel of Nolan’s fetish for scale, and what’s good and bad about the film comes out of the director’s need to stretch and swell his material into epic shape. […] Great horror is uncanny, irrepressible, inexplicable, and Nolan isn’t adept at conjuring images that lodge in the unconscious. Even when he was literally making a movie about dreams, his mise-en-scene remained chastely geometric and orderly, more M.C. Escher than Hieronymus Bosch. Even when he reaches for literal horror movie effects in Oppenheimer, the effect is weirdly feeble: neither subtle enough for genuine artistry nor scary enough for cheap sensationalism. (He’s got nothing on James Cameron’s end-of-the-world vision in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.)
— Adam Nayman (The Ringer)
Nolan is unsubtle with the comparisons to Prometheus, who was punished for stealing fire from the gods, but his Oppenheimer, having traded himself and the world for gain, runs closer to Faust.
— George Iskander (Sight and Sound September 2023)