Oscar Watch 2023: Oppenheimer


If more biopics were like Oppenheimer, I wouldn’t be complaining about how dull they often are. Against all odds and my own personal film tastes, Oppenheimer pretty much blew me away. I didn’t want to believe Jesse Lab’s review on Flixist, where he gave the film a 9.5/10, because it seemed so unreal to me. How the hell was a biopic really that good? While I maybe wouldn’t rate it as highly as him, I can’t argue that director Christopher Nolan has created what is likely to be his magnum opus with this movie.

Now, the film does fudge some of the real-life details and omits other parts that would likely make for boring movie watching, but it is a mostly accurate interpretation of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life. Some of the more unbelievable details, such as a young “Oppie” attempting to poison his teacher or Harry S. Truman calling Oppenheimer a crybaby, actually did happen. Nolan clearly embellishes parts and we’ll never know the exact words that were uttered in Los Alamos, but this is one of the better biopics for its dedication to getting its subject’s life correct. A Vox article does detail aspects that Nolan got wrong, though a lot of that is based on Oppenheimer’s early life and his rich upbringing; i.e. stuff that wouldn’t make for compelling cinema.

A friend of mine wasn’t too hot on Oppenheimer, but he did bring up a point that I think is worth mentioning. The actual personality of J. Robert Oppenheimer is pretty boring. While it is interesting that he had more leftist-leaning ideology in a period where American jingoism was so rampant, he was mostly like any other scumbag dude. He cheated on his wife, thought only of himself, leaned on his parents’ money, and neglected his children. The film glosses over those aspects, but I almost don’t even consider Oppenheimer as a 100% pure biopic.


© Universal Pictures

What Nolan rightfully focuses on with this movie is the building of the atomic bomb and the steps that required. When I got to the final third of the movie, one prevailing concept stuck in my mind. Oppenheimer is a film about a dutiful American citizen getting screwed over by his country. I know there is more going on in the era the film was set, which is technically the late 50s as Oppenheimer’s life is told in flashbacks, but it’s kind of astonishing to see how mercilessly the government went after the man who developed the weapon which ended World War 2.

I’m not even trying to argue that Oppenheimer didn’t deserve scrutiny for his participation in the Manhattan Project. For my money, I don’t think Nolan pulls many punches as Cillian Murphy’s depiction of the man is not overly sympathetic. There are definitely aspects where Murphy captures the tortured soul that Oppenheimer may have reflected on for a few years, but he also excellently portrays the grandiose attitude the man had after becoming famous across the globe. The walk he does with his corncob hat, overly large jacket, and well-tailored pants: Oppenheimer is such a nerd. Anyway, the government didn’t go after him for creating a weapon of mass destruction, but because he was suspected of being a communist.

Films don’t need to have modern-day parallels to be interesting and entertaining, but, surprisingly, the story of Oppenheimer’s security clearance hearing reflects a lot of the anxieties people are facing nowadays. I’m not even drawing lines between imbeciles decrying “woke” culture and getting “canceled” or anything. Nolan couldn’t have known when developing this film, but the genocide of Palestine by Israel has seen many people completely blacklisted for standing up against a colonialist nation.

© Universal Pictures

We’ve at least advanced enough as a society since McCarthyism to not imprison people over their opinions, but there is still a prevailing mentality of “towing the line” that permeates the air. I think of actress Melissa Barrera who was fired from the upcoming Scream 7 for voicing her support of Palestine. While the official response is that her words were “antisemitic,” that’s a bunch of garbage. Western politics have continuously viewed Middle Eastern countries as less than human for decades. Bush-era warmongering didn’t help deter the public from further Islamophobia and we’re now in 2024 where people are seemingly making excuses for an ongoing genocide because they can’t accept that Palestinians are people.

Maybe my correlation here isn’t backed up by causation, but I can’t help but draw the connection. J. Robert Oppenheimer was a citizen of the United States who did his damnedest to help the country under official military order. He certainly became obsessed with creating the bomb and his creation is possibly one of the worst things to happen in human history, but he didn’t disobey or hide anything from his government. He did what he was told. Just because he flirted with the idea of communism and socialism in his past and supported causes that didn’t uphold the status quo, the man was tried in a kangaroo court. That’s trash.

We’re nearly 100 years removed from those events happening and their effects still linger. That’s almost a poetic interpretation of the shockwaves that happen from atomic bombs, but I shouldn’t be painting that incident in such a colorful manner. One thing I do appreciate Nolan omitting in the film was any kind of footage of Hiroshima or Nagasaki being bombed. It would do a disservice to the attitude that Oppenheimer held if we, the audience, saw the devastation firsthand. Oppenheimer never did and he never apologized for creating such a weapon, so it’s good that Nolan didn’t attempt to rewrite history there.

© Universal Pictures

Getting back to film criticism, the thing that captivated me the most about Oppenheimer was its soundtrack. Ludwig Goransson has been doing good work for years, most notably on The Mandalorian, but he has really outdone himself with this score. In the beginning, when Oppenheimer is told to envision his theories as music, there’s a playfulness to the soundtrack that creates angelic imagery. Later on, some of the pieces start chaotic before slowly conforming to typical musical patterns, almost echoing the thoughts of its subject.

For me, it was the piece playing when Oppenheimer needed to hand his son over to his friend Haakon Chevalier. The writing is completely on point, with Oppenheimer stating, “We’re selfish, awful people,” but the score becomes calm and introspective during this scene. I cried, utterly floored by every element coalescing into this beautiful whole. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Nolan craft such a fantastic moment before.

That also pours over into the detonation of the first atomic bomb at the Trinity test site. Everything is done with in-camera effects, which is absolutely amazing, but the pacing and build-up of tension are second to none. Despite how we know the world won’t suddenly erupt into flames and that the bomb is 100% going to succeed, you can’t help but be on the edge of your seat. The acting, directing, editing, and soundtrack: it is all firing in perfect synchronicity and the end result is outstanding.

© Universal Pictures

I don’t have too much else to add about Oppenheimer. I’m not suddenly a Christopher Nolan stan as longtime readers of Flixist will know, but I have to give him major props for this project. While some of its $968 million global box office take can be attributed to Barbie and the phenomenon known as Barbenheimer, this film really is that good. I hope that other studios will see that dedication and attention to detail can pay off big rather than for future biopics to continue in the vein of something like Maestro.

Peter Glagowski
Peter is an aspiring writer with a passion for gaming and fitness. If you can't find him in front of a game, you'll most likely find him pumping iron.