Oppenheimer (2023)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

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)


The movie is structured as a sort of mosaic. […] It’s natural to figure that such a fractured chronology would have a destabilizing effect—Nolan directed Memento, after all—but, in fact, the temporal scheme makes Oppenheimer less complex rather than more. The insistence on correlation means that events get reduced to their function within a larger morality tale. Nolan cuts his scenes to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, and details that don’t fit—contradictions, subtleties, even little random peculiarities—get left out, and, with them, the feeling of experience, whether the protagonist’s or the viewer’s. What remains is a movie to be solved rather than lived. […] the film is so intent on making Oppenheimer an icon of conflicted conscience that it pays little attention to his character over all. He was a renowned aesthete with a bearing so charismatic that his students would try to emulate it, but we get little more than a couple of artsy name-drops to suggest that he has any cultural life at all. The “overweening ambition” that Groves saw in Oppenheimer is never in evidence, nor is there any mention of his chilling readiness to go along with a plan (one that was never put into action) to poison German food supplies with radioactive strontium. […] The performance, no less than the script, reduces the protagonist to an abstraction created to be analyzed. […] A hallmark of Nolan’s method […] is to take the complexities of science, turn them into sensationalist science fiction, and then reinfuse the result with brow-furrowing seriousness. The last step is often achieved by means of chronological or visual intricacies that render objectivity as deep subjective strangeness; strip away such effects, however, and one sees characters conceived in simplistically sentimental terms that are pure melodrama. […] Unfortunately, Nolan parsimoniously withholds [the meeting with Einstein] to the end—like a banknote that, thanks to the inflation of the rest of the movie, has lost most of its value by the time it’s used. Oppenheimer sacrifices much of its dramatic force to the importance of its subject, and to Nolan’s pride at having tackled it—which is to say, to his own self-importance.

Richard Brody (The New Yorker)


Most of Nolan’s scripts are tortured: convoluted yet overexplained, obvious and self-impressed in all the wrong places. And still, Oppenheimer is astonishing in its sloppiness. It lurches from TV movie hackery [t]o moments, like Gary Oldman’s brief appearance as Harry Truman, that have all the grace and subtlety of an SNL cold open. (In one such scene, [an] aide drops the name “John F. Kennedy” like one would a new villain’s identity in one of those post-credits Marvel stingers.) The film’s fragmented structure is preposterous and anticlimactic, the fixation on Lewis Strauss’s Senate confirmation hearing a fundamental misunderstanding of the ways Oppenheimer was wronged—or the ways Oppenheimer was wrong about himself.


Essentially, the film shows a man being railroaded by those who don’t understand him, or those who understand him well enough to marginalize him—a pathetic misreading by Nolan, who has personally benefited from being handed the keys to massive industrial might.

Paul Thompson (LA Review of Books)


The current cycle [of business/product movies], by my count, includes five films, all from 2023: Ben Affleck’s Air, about Nike’s creation of the Air Jordan sneaker; BlackBerry, a rueful look at Research in Motion’s development of their eponymous proto-smartphone; Tetris, a comedy-thriller on video-game licensing set in the Soviet Union as it’s collapsing; The Beanie Bubble, Kristin Gore’s cringey assessment of Ty’s line of plush collectible stuffed animals; and Flamin’ Hot, Eva Longoria’s story of how a janitor at a Fritos factory came up with the idea that PepsiCo should market snack chips to Latinos by coating them in tongue-burning red dust. […] Oppenheimer, it should be noted, was the story of a product launch, too. It showed a group of men taking a risk on the biggest bomb in history.

A.S. Hamrah (Fast Company)