Astonishing feature centers on brilliant physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Murphy), leader of the Manhattan Project, the elite group of scientists that produced the two atomic bombs that ended World War 2. With the ensuing Cold War and Red Scare, Oppenheimer’s past arrogance and impulsivity come back to haunt him, as his pre-war flirtation with communism threatens the renewal of his security clearance in 1954. His romantic life is equally fraught, with wife Kitty (Blunt) descending into alcoholism and mistress Jean (Pugh), mental illness. Meanwhile, former associate Lewis Strauss (Downey), once head of the Atomic Energy Commission, who first admired but grew to despise “Oppie”, faces his own reckoning during confirmation hearings for an Eisenhower cabinet post in 1959.
Sweeping film succeeds on all fronts, encapsulating in just three hours the complex work (and inner workings) of this brilliant, tortured figure, while evoking the turbulent times in which he lived. Dense in incident and dialogue, Nolan dares to execute a non-linear approach, jumbling chronology. He also alternates between color (scenes shot from Oppenheimer’s perspective) and black and white (later sequences focused on Strauss). Nolan paints on a large cinematic canvas with help from gifted cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, which works here to portray one highly consequential, extraordinary life. The whole powerhouse cast shines, particularly a suitably intense Murphy and Downey in an Oscar-worthy performance. Highlight: blinding light at Los Alamos. It’s a big moment in a big movie.