Christopher Nolan’s feature reminds us of the potency of cinema, and the importance of physical media
With a box office take approaching a billion dollars, news of 4K/Blu-ray releases selling out nationwide, and hefty buzz going into awards season, Christopher Nolan’s latest effort is undeniably one of the cinematic success stories of 2023. Perhaps surprising given the film is at it’s core a biopic, and a meditation on the unleashing of a world changing power. Perhaps unsurprising given Nolan’s previous success with cerebral blockbusters such as Dunkirk, Interstellar, Inception, and Tenet. While there are interweaving stories and time-frames here, they all converge on the man and the moment. An enthralling look at the race against time to beat the Nazis to the A-bomb, and the aftermath of it’s detonation, as the destructive force sends shockwaves through the social and political arena, and the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
The core of the film is the journey taken by Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) from his precocious days as a student of theoretical physics, through his rise in academic, and eventually his being selected by one Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves Jr. (Matt Damon) to spearhead an effort to beat the Nazi menace in the USA’s development of the world’s first atomic bomb. The effort, from 1942 to 1946, involved the recruitment of the foremost physicists and mathematicians and engineers to collaborate at the newly founded Los Alamos Labs in New Mexico. More than a research facility, this was a secure community built to house these academics, their families and support staff, for their long haul effort to crack the atom.
Nolan, ever the fan of non-linear or parallel story-lines, dips back and forth in time to flesh out other aspects of this enigmatic man and others involved in the project. Most notably two key periods. The first, centered around Oppenheimer’s secret 1954 security hearing where he was faced with efforts to discredit him. A response to his growing prominence as an outspoken force against the ongoing development of the H-bomb program. The second, focused on the 1958 confirmation hearing of Lewis Strauss’ (Robert Downey Jr.) to become President Eisenhower’s Secretary of Commerce. Strauss being a key political figure in the development of the Atomic weapon (and energy) program, and the man predominantly responsible for tearing down Oppenheimer to ensure his own ascension.
Politics and power. Hypotheses and equations. Period piece meets legal drama. Various components that could be dry, or poorly composed. In Nolan’s hands, it make for some of the most compelling, propulsive, and dynamic storytelling you’ll see this, or any year. This is not a historical drama that seeks to chronicle the horrors unleashed upon the Japanese, but instead focus on the man and the moment when Pandora’s box was opened. The film also mirrors another tale, one of a man birthing a monster, Frankenstein. Oppenheimer is the epitome of a driven scientist. Focused, detached, driven. The urgency of their success in beating the Nazis is clear, the aftermath of what they unleash only starts to sink in once it’s too late to turn back. The film also draws from the myth of Prometheus, who took fire from the Gods and gave it to mankind, forever changing their fate and ensuring his perpetual doom. Oppenheimer isn’t quite tethered to a rock and subjected to having an eagle eat his liver for eternity as punishment, but the moral and political consequence of his achievement certainly serves as a test of his character and fortitude.
It’s a masterful turn from Cillian Murphy who shoulders more than just the narrative, but the entire weight of what the film is reckoning with. A glacier like surface, especially those deep-baby blues, perpetuating this enigmatic figure. Murphy’s delivery and physicality convey the early airs of a creative force, to the later hollowed out shell of a man, quietly internalizing a sense of regret and atonement. Oppenheimer showcases a ludicrously stacked ensemble. Benny Safdie, Josh Harnett, Alden Ehrenreich, Jason Clarke, David Krumholtz, Alex Wolff, Dane DeHaan, Kenneth Branagh, Macon Blair, Matthew Modine, Tom Conti, and Olivia Thirlby, to name a notable slice of the talent involved. Matt Damon as Groves, the military man overseeing the project adds a much needed gruff charm to counter the academic edge that infuses the film, while Gary Oldman has a brief, but glorious appearance as President Truman. Robert Downey Jr will (rightly) see plenty of buzz come awards season, and it’s also worth highlighting the work of Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh as J Robert’s wife Kitty Oppenheimer, and his mistress Jean Tatlock respectively. Both crucial aspects of the film, and partners to Murphy, that help to lay out more of the flawed humanity that makes up this titular figure.
The film exudes quality in every element of its craft. The script, from Nolan, Kai Bird and Martin Sherw, is enthralling, as well as brilliantly structured. Stunning cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema showcases superb production design, with attention to period detail. Sound design is a thunderous affair, which combined with Ludwig Göransson’s muscular score, makes for one of the most visceral experiences of the year. Nolan’s direction comes with it’s usual sense of aplomb. Oppenheimer is propulsive and relentlessly compelling, whether depicting a cross-examination in a boxy office space, or experiential sequences that dance within the atomic realm. An indelible work, that underscores the drive that comes with discovery, and the flaws deep within humanity.
Visually, Oppenheimer is a knockout. In IMAX, vibrant and visceral images were burned onto our retinas and into our minds. It all but feels like a guaranteed Oscar for Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. The home video release, while obviously lacking the scale of the movie theater, does an outstanding job at conveying the work that went into the film’s visuals and compositions. Superb detail and texture. Crisp colors enhanced by deep inky blacks. It’s a flawless transfer, and likely to become one of your new go to picks when you want to show off the image quality of your home system. Beyond the superb visuals, the release is also supported by a host of extra features that further appreciation for Nolan’s feature, as well as the talented folk that contributed to it:
- The Story of Our Time: The Making of Oppenheimer – Running over 70 minutes, this is an exhaustive dive into the making of the film. Drawing from interviews, behind the scenes footage, crew conversations, and more, it covers all areas of the production. It;s actually broken down into 7segments: Now I am Become Death, The Luminaries, The Manhattan Project, The Devil of the Details, Walking a Mile, Can You Hear the Music?, and We Can Perform This Miracle
- Innovations in Film: 65mm Black and White Film in Oppenheimer: Hoyte van Hoytema and tech crew discuss the experience of utilizing the monochrome approach taken for select sequences in the film, from technical problems during filming and processing, to integration into the whole feature
- To End All War: Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb – A historically tilted featurette that delves into the truth behind the titular figure and his involvement in the Manhattan project
- Meet the Press Q&A Panel: Oppenheimer: A panel putting together Nolan along with some of the key figures depicted in the film, whereupon they give their opinions on their portrayal, and how the events are depicted
- Trailers: Teaser, theatrical trailers, and the IMAX trailer
The Bottom Line
Going into the last few weeks of 2023, you’ll be seeing Oppenheimer crop up on plenty of year end “Best of” lists. Rightly so too. It’s a towering work, that is as compelling as it is complex and considered. Propulsive and dynamic storytelling, brought to life by one of the best ensembles you’ll see all year. Nolan himself has verbally championed the importance of physical media, and with this home video release, he backs up those claims. A superb release, and a exemplar as to the enduring importance of physical media.
Oppenheimer is available on 4K, Blu-ray, and digital, now.