I will start this review by stating that I am more or less clueless about the history involving J. Robert Oppenheimer and everything surrounding the Manhattan Project. I went into this with the mindset that I may learn a thing or two, but I have to admit that these things get hard when the film unfolding gets pretty confusing. Perhaps not so much to history buffs who know about this stuff, but for clueless, little old me, I came out of this movie knowing what I already knew, and it certainly wouldn't be among my favourite films from Christopher Nolan.
Having said that, I would probably take this review with a grain of salt, as it seems to be one of the higher-reviewed movies of the year from other sources. I won't rip the movie apart for being "bad". But the simple fact is that this went a little beyond my overall understanding, and the way the film time jumps back and forth with timelines can make it pretty confusing. In some ways, however, this is to be expected with a Nolan film. He does not dumb things down for his audience; if you don't get it, you just don't. But I'll see what I can pull off here, despite several brain farts throughout the film.
Beginning things in 1926, J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) studies at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, where he eventually met Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), who recommended that he studied theoretical physics in Germany. After completing his PhD, (and meeting Werner Heisenberg [Matthias Schweighöfer]) Oppenheimer heads back to America to spread the knowledge of quantum physics there. He starts teaching with only one student, meets his future wife Kitty Puening, ex-Communist (Emily Blunt), and shows us his womanizing skills by also having an affair with one Jean Tatlock, Communist (Florence Pugh).
Fast-forward to 1942, after much more set-up, Army General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) recruits Oppenheimer to lead the Manhattan Project and develop an Atomic Bomb. With his Jewish background, Oppenheimer is especially fuelled to beat the Nazis in this race, knowing what destruction it would entail if the Nazis managed it first. Oppenheimer's dream team of scientists includes the likes of Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), Isidor Isaac Rabi (David Krumholtz), Enrico Fermi (Danny Deferrari) and David L. Hill (Rami Malek). From there, we know how things go, as history has informed even the simplest of us (mainly speaking for myself).
The other end of this story is where I get completely lost because it has everything to do with politics and Communism, and I just plain suck at understanding these things entirely. As far as I can tell, it has to do with the eventual Cold War, where Oppenheimer's desire to cease research on nuclear bombs conflicts with the views of Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). Many politics enter into it all, especially concerning Oppenheimer's past associations with Communism (hence mentioning it alongside his two love interests earlier). Politics tend to be, however, where movies lose me.
I suppose it's easy to say that many others will watch this and get much more than I did out of it. But again, that's not to say this was bad. There was plenty for me to admire here regarding overall performances, the time-transporting set design, and the painting of Oppenheimer as a fallible human being. I'm sure it's easy for many to see him as "the guy who invented the nuke" and instantly put him in the villain category. So to the film's credit, this was a movie about the man and not so much what he accomplished along with the aftermath it caused.
When all is said and done, this will end up being one of those titles everyone else will love, but I'll just say it was "okay". As mentioned earlier, it's far from my favourite Nolan film. I'm also not the kind of guy who believes Nolan can do no wrong, as I know some might. I find him to be sort of hit-or-miss, and the misses are primarily because I'm watching the film with a big question mark above my head. Sadly, this was one of those, although it WAS easier to follow than 'Tenet'. This undoubtedly has its audience, and I can't say anything truly negative against it because my only real dislike about it was me not absorbing it, which is very much a "me" problem. So again, take this review with a massive grain of salt.