The other half of this summer’s “Barbenheimer” phenomenon, “Oppenheimer” did so well in its second weekend that it gets a full review all its own. Sure, it came in a distant second to “Barbie” both weekends, but with an estimated $174 million at the domestic box office thus far, it’s more than on pace to become the biggest movie of all time to never win a weekend. The unofficial, counterintuitive, and highly-unusual “Barbenheimer” marketing campaign (“contrast the glittery comedy with a drama about the atomic bomb”) certainly helped this film’s box office, but it’s a strong enough movie that I’d like to think that it could have been a hit even without its unlikely pink ally.
Cillian Murphy (who I could tell from the first publicity photo was perfect, Oscar-ready casting) stars as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man credited as the “father of the atomic bomb.” Much like “The Social Network,” the film intercuts its usually-linear historical portion with the framing device of two hearings, one involving Oppenheimer himself, the other involving nemesis Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. As Strauss is not a scientist himself, he and Oppenheimer never get along well professionally, but after a perceived derogatory comment made toward Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), he has it in for Oppenheimer personally.
Much of the movie is standard biopic territory: we follow Oppenheimer from his days at Cambridge getting advice from Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branaugh) to his role as director of The Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the bomb was designed and built. In his personal life, Robert takes up a relationship with the married Kitty (Emily Blunt) while having an affair with Communist sympathizer Jean (Florence Pugh). Oppenheimer and his colleagues go through the expected setbacks and successes, culminating in a high-stakes demonstration and one of the most massive explosions ever put on film. Soon the bomb is taken away from the scientists and used in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, and Oppenheimer has to forever live with the knowledge that he played an integral role in arguably the most devastating event in human history.
There’s surprisingly little violence in the film, outside of an offscreen suicide and a sequence where Oppenheimer imagines the effects of the bomb. There isn’t even that much “action,” really, unless you count carefully-orchestrated test explosions. But make no mistake, this is one of the most intense films of the year. Sure, some of it has to do with the urgency of the arms race and the stakes involved, but it’s more than that. Director Christopher Nolan knows how to expertly craft a thriller, and his tight pacing and editing will make your heart pound whether it’s bombs or tempers that are flaring.
I’ll be honest, a lot about “Oppenheimer” went over my head, from science to politics to legalese to history. And even if I did know more about all these subjects, I still might get overwhelmed by the film’s crowded cast and all the time-jumping. Yet there was never any doubt that what was happening was of great importance, whether to world powers or the world of one. And it’s all done with Nolan’s trademark crispness. The bomb-building and hearings may not be pretty or “sleek” necessarily, but you’ll get the impression that these things cannot be done by anyone other than the people doing them. If you’re looking for a “party” movie where everyone will find something to enjoy while they socialize and pay minimal attention, then “Barbie” is the way to go there. But if you’re ready to be transfixed by a film that will occasionally blow you to the back of your seat (seriously, this is the time to spring for a premium theater experience like IMAX), then “Oppenheimer” is the movie of the summer, maybe the year.
“Oppenheimer” is rated R for some sexuality, nudity, and language. Its running time is an even 180 minutes, in a precision that seems only fitting.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.