Oppenheimer — a review

Aditya Gaonkar
4 min readAug 5, 2023
Cillian Murphy’s Tour de Force.

When the movie was announced last year at around this time, I began looking forward to how Nolan will respond to the relative debacle that Tenet was (maybe it’ll be better on a rewatch, which I plan to do). He definitely didn’t disappoint, aided by a performance of a lifetime pulled off by his longtime collaborator Cillian Murphy.

The movie has many layers to it. It has to portray a complicated central character, his clashes with his peers, the science of the central endeavour of the movie, the messy intersection of science and politics and most important of all, the psychological effect this central endeavour had on its protagonist. It’s frankly impressive that Nolan managed to pull off portraying all these themes very coherently, something only he might be capable of doing in this age. Even if I point out some shortfalls with the movie, it’ll not mean that Nolan did a bad job, but that he had his limitations. For what it’s worth, I don’t think any other director and/or writer could pull off this movie in this shape. Indeed, its high praise of Nolan that he has the ability to pull off high concept movies in a great shape, notwithstanding their flaws, think Interstellar for example.

The movie is structured quite nicely, as we are told the story in a nonlinear fashion, typical of Nolan. We have two hearings serving as the backdrop of the movie — a closed door hearing regarding Oppenheimer’s security clearance and a US Senate hearing regarding the nomination of Lewis Strauss as Secretary of Commerce. Most of the flashbacks emanate from Oppenheimer’s hearing, covering his life from being a young student in England to the time before those hearings. Strauss’s hearing adds details of how Oppenheimer’s plight in his hearings came to be. Overall, for the uninitiated into Nolan’s style, the movie can feel dizzying and fast paced (despite it’s three hour long runtime), but for those well versed with his style, the movie is a treat.

Cillian Murphy and RDJ totally steal the show as Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss, pretty much relegating the other actors into seeming mediocre, despite Matt Damon and Emily Blunt doing well in their limited roles. While Murphy’s performance deservedly will get acclaim for what he has managed to pull off, I feel RDJ’s portrayal of Strauss was the breakout performance of the movie (which reminded me of his performance in Tropic Thunder). The two actors definitely deserve the Oscar for what they managed to pull off in this movie. Possibly the best performative moment of the movie is Murphy’s utterly haunted face at the end of the movie after Oppenheimer’s weighty conversation with Einstein (the pic at the beginning of the article).

The music, cinematography and production of the movie are brilliant, on par with what we can expect from a Nolan classic. The music gels with the backdrop of each scene very well, as well as Interstellar’s did (I’ll probably be a bit more partial towards Interstellar’s OST however, a true tour de force by Zimmer). The eponymous track from the OST, which if my memory serves right is played during the last conversation of the movie is the standout piece:

A special mention ought to go to the pivotal scene of the movie, the Trinity test. The way it’s built up and portrayed is outstanding, and special mention goes to the madlads who rigged up a real explosion to look like an atomic explosion, without resorting to CGI (or maybe secretly an atomic bomb is missing from the American arsenal, we can speculate ;) ).

A controversy has erupted in India regarding certain sex scenes in the movie where verses from Bhagavad Gita are read out during carnal activities. It’s been mostly cut from the version I saw with only the famous line “Now I’m become death” being recited as it fades away (apparently it’s more extensive). Frankly, I’m not sure what Nolan’s motivation was to do it, but I should state that I find it distasteful and disrespectful towards the holy text (maybe if I see the uncut version, it’ll add some more context, but hard to tell if I’ll change my mind).

And speaking of Bhagavad Gita, I found it a bit surprising that the movie refrained from referring to the text more extensively. Alongside the aforementioned scene, another place where the text makes an appearance is in Oppenheimer’s thoughts after the Trinity test, where the “Now I’m become death” line is recalled by him. Considering that it’s quite well documented how the text had a significant influence on Oppenheimer’s life, I think Nolan should have tried referring to it more extensively, rather than cursory and arguably one distasteful reference to it. Nonetheless, there’s a long article by James Hijiya, documenting Oppenheimer’s deep fascination with the Gita, which if you’re interested can be accessed here. Maybe Nolan should have attempted to incorporate the text more into the movie to add another layer to Oppenheimer’s character.

Overall, the movie is a worthy watch. I’m now even more interested in what Nolan will do next, as he’s now shown with Dunkirk and Oppenheimer that he’s equally comfortable with weaving stories out of real world events, as he is with sci-fi and complex superheroes.

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Aditya Gaonkar

IC Design Engineer. Retired FC Barcelona fan. Interested in physics, mathematics, philosophy, memes, epic fantasy. IIT Madras and Columbia University alum.