Oppenheimer: A Masterpiece in Eureka and Regret

17th Dallas International Film Festival

By Alyson Powers

My physics teacher once said there’s enough energy in a grape to destroy a city. She avoided discussing splitting atoms by fission, I could see her nerves rise to discomfort as she sped up her cadence to get past the subject. She only taught fusion to explain energy produced by our sun. Hydrogen to Helium. Christopher Nolan’s fascination for science as art grows even more crafty. It carries out the basis for my Phys teacher’s fear and awe. He parallels it with truth of a human at the center, in the center, of brilliance in his film Oppenheimer.

We take for granted the power tied up in things our universe holds. All the little secrets we may never learn. But then there are the ever-so-curious who simply cannot stop asking questions and cannot suppress curiosity. J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atom bomb, meet Christopher Nolan, father of science-fiction filmmaking.

No surprise Nolan chose Cillian Murphy as Dr. Oppenheimer. He began working with Cillian in 2005 (Batman Begins) who went on to Peaky Blinders amongst several other phenomenal roles and landed back here playing an extremely conflicted and rapidly-growing-thin “Oppie” as he was in real life. Cillian’s range and talent evolution can be witnessed with the progression of more serious roles, but mostly in the fact that you completely forget you’re watching an actor. 

Star-studded provokes understatement if you begin to list cast members here, and the addition of Josh Hartnett who played in Pearl Harbor from 2001 is a small dash of nuance that can be found in the selection of each character no matter how many lines they have. And I won’t begin to list them out. Two of my all-time favorites are in this film.

It opens during Robert Oppenheimer’s premier collection of college days here in the United States and then into conflicts of studying abroad, only to return home where less advancements and resources were available at the time. We travel through the whims of his character riding the ups and downs of his successes setbacks and irritations with comrades. For those seeking justice in art, Nolan does touch on each of the flaws our main seemed to be known for in life. When Matt Damon’s character the humor-in-humorless Lieutenant General Leslie Dick Groves selects Oppenheimer to run the Manhattan project, the race begins. And they remain side by side for most of the first half.

As you watch, keep in mind the maze of people introduced as if at a grand ball, passing only with a few moments with one before they disappear until you come back around to them fifteen minutes later. Our director works his flair for movement here, even beyond Memento (2000), and not as much in the people but in the scenes. Scenes move around Oppenheimer as a mind exploring ideas, like electrons flashing around a nucleus. In this movement you may feel lost, but not. Nolan is able to keep you up. He completes the film’s “model.” He holds it together.

Then, intermission—the first bomb. The story’s purpose doesn’t really begin until after that first test. Named Trinity. And appropriately three plots spring from that event into the second part of the film. State, Love, Science. Mood shifts in the second and it is as if you’re watching two completely different films, almost.

You’ll notice a conversion from black-and-white to color to black and white. Apparently, this has to do with perspective vs objectiveness. Yes, I cheated!! I had to look up why a jostle between the two was needed. I learned from an interview, black and white scenes project objective. More importantly, I read Nolan’s accuracy of characters and motives and transactions stands solid. Even if some situations feel outlandish, and even childish, the motives of characters are accurate.


Robert Downey’s role …. I’ll let unfold for you as I’ve spoiled enough just now. And Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty played by Emily Blunt. Love her! Brava, brava.

Technically, the film is a stunner. Shudders, misplaced focus, script supervisor “mistakes” are all well placed. It deserves a second watch in order to understand who characters are, how to connect them, and to grasp its timeline intermingled with emotions battling truths. 

But please as you watch, feel the sound. Did you know deep space has a sound? So does Ludwig Göransson. He knows how to pinch your nerves in sadistic delight scoring both lovemaking and momentary insanity.  And. Thank you, Florence Pugh for your brief yet sensual contribution of insight into understanding weakness as necessary distraction for Dr. JRO. 

Summing the second half of our “biography” into anxious insanity, and regret. You might feel unnerved too had you invented something so spectacularly tragic. Oh, and then also if the government sought to hush you when you wanted to tame your deadly beast.

 “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” -JRO

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15th Dallas International Film Festival