The story tracks Oppenheimer — played with feverish intensity by Cillian Murphy — across decades, starting in the 1920s with him as a young adult and continuing until his hair grays. The film touches on personal and professional milestones, including his work on the bomb, the controversies that dogged him, the anti-Communist attacks that nearly ruined him, as well as the friendships and romances that helped sustain yet also troubled him. He has an affair with a political firebrand named Jean Tatlock (a vibrant Florence Pugh), and later weds a seductive boozer, Kitty Harrison (Emily Blunt, in a slow-building turn), who accompanies him to Los Alamos, where she gives birth to their second child.
It’s a dense, event-filled story that Nolan — who’s long embraced the plasticity of the film medium — has given a complex structure, which he parcels into revealing sections. Most are in lush color; others in high-contrast black and white. These sections are arranged in strands that wind together for a shape that brings to mind the double helix of DNA. To signal his conceit, he stamps the film with the words “fission” (a splitting into parts) and “fusion” (a merging of elements); Nolan being Nolan, he further complicates the film by recurrently kinking up the overarching chronology — it is a lot.
It also isn’t a story that builds gradually; rather, Nolan abruptly tosses you into the whirl of Oppenheimer’s life with vivid scenes of him during different periods. In rapid succession the watchful older Oppie (as his intimates call him) and his younger counterpart flicker onscreen before the story briefly lands in the 1920s, where he’s an anguished student tormented by fiery, apocalyptic visions. He suffers; he also reads T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” drops a needle on Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and stands before a Picasso painting, defining works of an age in which physics folded space and time into space-time.
This fast pace and narrative fragmentation continue as Nolan fills in this Cubistic portrait, crosses and recrosses continents and ushers in armies of characters, including Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), a physicist who played a role in the Manhattan Project. Nolan has loaded the movie with familiar faces — Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Gary Oldman — some distracting. It took me a while to accept the director Benny Safdie as Edward Teller, the theoretical physicist known as the “father of the hydrogen bomb,” and I still don’t know why Rami Malek shows up in a minor part other than he’s yet another known commodity.
As Oppenheimer comes into focus so does the world. In 1920s Germany, he learns quantum physics; the next decade he’s at Berkeley teaching, bouncing off other young geniuses and building a center for the study of quantum physics. Nolan makes the era’s intellectual excitement palpable — Einstein published his theory of general relativity in 1915 — and, as you would expect, there’s a great deal of scientific debate and chalkboards filled with mystifying calculations, most of which Nolan translates fairly comprehensibly. One of the film’s pleasures is experiencing by proxy the kinetic excitement of intellectual discourse.