Christopher Nolan always aims high when he tackles a new movie. That’s what makes him such a special director. He strives to either give audiences awesome sci-fi concepts they haven’t seen before, or, as in Dunkirk, present history in a fresh manner. Oppenheimer is very much in the latter mode. You may know the story of the “Father of the Atomic Bomb” but experiencing his life and work through Nolan’s lens is a thrilling, captivating treat.

Cillian Murphy plays scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer. The story unfolds in two separate manners. Black-and-white sections detail the efforts of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.) to be confirmed as Secretary of Commerce and being grilled about his past support of Oppenheimer, who was a controversial person as of 1959. If his answers don’t satisfy the Senate committee members, Strauss will become the first candidate in decades to be denied confirmation. The heat is on.

Color sections show us significant events from Oppenheimer’s life, most notably his torrid affair with Communist Party USA member Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) and his occasionally rocky marriage to wife Kitty (Emily Blunt). Of course, the film’s primary focus is his work developing the atomic bomb. Clashes and collaborations with Manhattan Project director Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) are shown. So is the building of a town in Los Alamos, New Mexico, the area he determines to be the most suitable place to test the bomb. All these episodes are flashbacks, as Oppenheimer is being interrogated by a special committee that will decide if his security clearance will be renewed.

The centerpiece, naturally, is the assembly and test of the atomic bomb. Nolan achieves relentless ticking-clock suspense in how he approaches the movie overall and this facet, in particular. Oppenheimer is made up of scenes that usually last less than a minute. We’re given exactly what we need to know, with no unnecessary frills. Each short scene is played for full dramatic effect. Consequently, the race to build an A-bomb before Nazi Germany does has the urgency it requires. History books have told us how it went down. Nolan’s depiction brings it nerve-rattlingly alive.

The last of the film’s three fast-moving hours is dedicated to the aftermath, as Oppenheimer becomes a pariah for criticizing how his creation was used in war. (The Strauss arc is most prominent here.) Cillian Murphy’s work throughout is staggering. He brilliantly shows the duality of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who feels the irresistible thrill of making a historic scientific breakthrough as profoundly as he feels grief knowing his work led to the deaths of so many people. Nolan provides the structure, but Murphy infuses it with three-dimensional humanity.

Every supporting performance is right on the money, with Downey, Jr. shedding his usual quirky mannerisms to disappear into character as Strauss. Blunt and Pugh both shine as the women who factor significantly into the titular subject’s life. Much has been made of the steamy sex scenes between Murphy and Pugh. They aren’t exploitive, though. The romantic/sexual elements in the movie help put Oppenheimer’s life into fuller context, allowing us to see him as a man rather than as just an important historical figure.

Not a single second of Oppenheimer is wasted. With his impeccable cast, Nolan crafts a hard-hitting, thoroughly engrossing movie that conveys the significance of the atomic bomb’s formation, for better or worse. The director doesn’t merely recount actual events, he makes it clear why those events from decades ago remain relevant to every single one of us today. This is an extraordinary motion picture.

out of four

Oppenheimer is rated R for some sexuality, nudity, and language. The running time is 3 hours.