‘Oppenheimer’ a momentous achievement, at times pensive, at times explosive

Four stars from Richard Roeper for Christopher Nolan’s historical biopic of the complex scientist, which he says is magnificent and the best movie of the year.

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Cillian Murphy stars as J. Robert Oppenheimer in “Oppenheimer.”

Universal Pictures

Magnificent.

Christopher Nolan’s three-hour historical biopic “Oppenheimer” is a gorgeously photographed, brilliantly acted, masterfully edited and thoroughly engrossing epic that instantly takes its place among the finest films of this decade — an old-fashioned yet cutting-edge work that should resonate with film scholars and popcorn-toting mainstream movie lovers for years and decades to come.

At the risk of sounding like Nicole Kidman: This is why we still go to the cinema, to settle into our seats and slip into the darkness when the lights go down, to immerse ourselves in visual and aural storytelling at its finest. From the moment the closing credits begin to roll, we’re already looking forward to the next time we see “Oppenheimer.”

And the next.

‘Oppenheimer’

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Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Running time: 180 minutes. Rated R (for some sexuality, nudity and language). Opens Thursday at local theaters.

Adapted by Nolan from the book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” by Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird, “Oppenheimer” is a sprawling story that hops along the timeline and introduces so many characters I’ll admit I wouldn’t have minded some title cards introducing them as they come and go. Nolan, however, opts to plunge us into events in sometimes chaotic fashion and invites us to hold on for the ride, mirroring the thrilling and yet terrifying and politically charged atmosphere of the world of physics in the early and mid-20th century, when some of the brightest scientific minds in history were making discoveries and advancements that would change the world forever — and possibly end the world as we know it.

With frequent Nolan collaborator Cillian Murphy delivering subtly powerful work as Oppenheimer and an astonishingly deep supporting cast led by Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Matt Damon and Florence Pugh (with more than a dozen additional huge talents popping in for a scene or two), “Oppenheimer” is a massively ambitious undertaking, with Nolan (“Inception,” “Dunkirk”) further solidifying his standing as one of the dominant filmmakers of his generation.

Writer-director Nolan tells much of the story in the context of the complicated and eventually contentious relationship between Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss (Downey), the naval officer and politician and self-styled amateur physicist who was in awe of Oppenheimer’s intellect but came to resent him for his hubris and his politics.

When Strauss welcomes Oppenheimer at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1947 to offer him the directorship of the Institute, Oppenheimer is a world-famous war hero known as the father of the atomic bomb, and Strauss is practically a fanboy. By the 1950s, everything had changed, as we see in two primary framing devices that Nolan returns to again and again: the 1954 Atomic Energy Personnel Security Board hearings to determine whether Oppenheimer would retain his security clearance, which were held in secret in a claustrophobic conference room; and the 1959 Senate floor hearings on President Eisenhower’s appointment of Strauss to Secretary of Commerce, which became something of a public spectacle, as Strauss found himself at peril of becoming the first Cabinet appointee rejected by the Senate in decades. (Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema deftly toggle back and forth between vibrant color and stunning black-and-white to depict the different eras.)

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Politician Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) hires Oppenheimer but later comes to resent him.

Universal Pictures

“Oppenheimer” marvels at the titular subject’s incredible mind, with Nolan depicting Oppy’s genius through subtle notes such as the plinking of raindrops in a pond, and ferocious tones, as when we see Oppenheimer pinned awake in his bed at night, terrified by his visions. As Oppenheimer becomes a superstar in the world of physics and rubs shoulders with the likes of Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) and Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), he’s borderline reckless in his personal life, whether he’s attending Communist Party USA meetings (his brother was a party member, as were several close friends) or engaging in multiple affairs, most notably his longtime entanglement with the troubled and volatile Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh).

When Oppenheimer marries Katherine “Kitty” Puening (Emily Blunt), his life becomes even more complicated, with Kitty experiencing post-partum depression and becoming an alcoholic. Just because you’re a genius doesn’t mean you’re immune from coming home to a wailing child and a wife who is sitting in the dark with a bottle.

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The borderline reckless scientist (Murphy) marries Katherine “Kitty” Puening (Emily Blunt), who becomes an alcoholic.

Universal Pictures

In 1942, Manhattan Project director Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) appoints Oppenheimer to head the secret weapons lab, and they literally build a town in Los Alamos, New Mexico, to house the collection of scientists and support staff and their families. In one of the most impressively staged sequences you’ll ever see, Nolan re-creates the world’s first nuclear explosion at the site known as Trinity in July of 1945. The teeth-rattling power of the explosion, the symphony of orange in the sky, the reactions of a number of key players as they look on in wonder, the expert use of sound (and in some frames, the lack thereof) — it all adds up to a stunning achievement in filmmaking. And in the midst of it all, we see how Oppenheimer is equal parts thrilled and horrified by what has been wrought.

“Oppenheimer” is a great war movie without a single scene of war. It is neither a hagiography nor an indictment of Oppenheimer, as it celebrates his genius and his achievements, while never shying away from his vulnerabilities and failings. This is a film deserving of double-digit Oscar nominations, from best picture to best director to a number of technical categories to the performances of Murphy, Blunt, Downey, Damon and Pugh. It is the best movie of the year so far and one of the best films of the 21st century.

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