Who comes to your mind when you read the words “talented” and “actor”? If they’re white and middle-aged, they’re probably in Oppenheimer (2023). Directed by Christopher Nolan, the film is about American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and has a massive cast, packed with famous names (many of whom are in blink-and-miss-it-roles). On one hand, this does make Oppenheimer feel like a bingo for white actors of a certain age, but it’s also a neat reflection of a time when the field of theoretical physics really was a constellation of the brightest minds. From Albert Einstein to Niels Bohr and Richard Feynman, Oppenheimer was surrounded by brilliance. Nolan effectively recreates that with his all-star cast.
Based on the book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Nolan’s film focuses on two sets of hearings. One is in 1954, when Oppenheimer was questioned by the United States Atomic Energy Commission for his “associations” with people and groups suspected of being Communists. The second hearing features Lewis Strauss, who appointed Oppenheimer for a plum post at a prestigious research institute in America. In 1959, when Strauss was hoping to become the secretary of commerce, he found himself faced with uncomfortable questions about his relationship with Oppenheimer.
Nolan uses these two hearings to recap how Oppenheimer went from being a brilliant young student to the father of the atomic bomb. While drawing closely on Bird and Sherwin’s book — Nolan’s screenplay frequently takes sentences and quotes from American Prometheus — the film’s focus is narrower as it trains its gaze on what Oppenheimer and Strauss symbolise.
Once dubbed “the next Colin Farrell”, this Irish actor is perhaps best known for his roles in the show Peaky Blinders and more recently A Quiet Place Part II (2021), but he’s also a Nolan regular. Murphy was Dr. Crane in Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). He was also in Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and Dunkirk (2017).
In Oppenheimer, he plays the titular hero who, in American Prometheus, is described as having arresting blue eyes (check), being painfully thin (check) and radiating charisma (check). Murphy is brilliant as the scientist who is troubled by the consequences of building the bomb that he’d hoped would end all wars, and outwitted by his egoistical colleagues. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema use Murphy’s crystalline blue eyes to spectacular effect and Murphy is able to convey multitudes with just the way he looks into the camera. One of the most unforgettable scenes in Oppenheimer is when Murphy stands before a crowd of cheering staff, after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and gives a speech. His words sound triumphant but Murphy’s performance (aided by Nolan’s masterful use of sound and visual effects) lets us see how Oppenheimer’s spirit is broken under the weight of knowing what horror he’s helped unleash into the world.
In promotional interviews for Oppenheimer, Downey Jr. admitted that after all the years of playing Iron Man, he wasn’t sure if he still had it in him to do ‘real’ acting. There’s no relying upon green screens or special effects in a Nolan film and Downey Jr. proves he still has the acting chops that made everyone sit up and take notice of him in films like Chaplin (1992).
Watching the character of Lewis Strauss unfurl and unravel through Downey Jr.’s performance is an absolute delight. The actor slips into his familiar mannerisms only a few times. For most part, he inhabits the skin of this consummate bureaucrat who knows how to navigate the corridors of power and who will not be taken lightly. There’s an unsettling stillness that Downey Jr. gives to Lewis Strauss that is mesmerising and the black and white cinematography — parts of Oppenheimer are shot in monochrome — really emphasise the character’s shadowy nature.
The first hour and a half of Oppenheimer introduces the audience to a rushing array of actors and characters. Here are the actors you should keep an eye out for, along with a little bit about the people they’re playing.
Tatlock was an American psychiatrist. She and Oppenheimer had dated briefly and continued to be closely intertwined even after their relationship collapsed and Oppenheimer got married. Tatlock was also an official member of the American Communist Party and the fact that Oppenheimer had been in contact with her while he was director of the Manhattan Project was used by his opponents to devastating effect.
In the film, Pugh doesn’t really get to establish much more than Jean Tatlock being sexy and teary-eyed. She joins the long list of women characters in Nolan films who shimmer with promise, but get to make little impact. Also, Pugh has a scene in which she’s nude, but in order to protect our tender Indian sensibilities, her body has been blacked out. We hope you feel comforted.
Lieutenant General Leslie Groves oversaw the construction of the Pentagon and was the man in-charge of the Manhattan Project. Although he was known for being rude and wasn’t particularly popular with either his military or civilian colleagues, Groves ended up being one of Oppenheimer’s few champions. He supported the physicist and on more than one occasion deliberately ignored red flags raised by those within the American administration who were on an eager witch hunt for “commies”.
Damon is in fine form as the barrel-chested Army man. While he’s able to bring in a few much-needed laughs, Damon’s best scene in the film is when he presents himself for the security hearing. At one point, he finds himself in a position where he has to choose between the truth and giving those targeting Oppenheimer what they want. It’s a wonderful bit of acting.
There’s a scene in Oppenheimer where a man decides he’s going to intimidate Kitty Oppenheimer into spilling some information. He’s smug with masculine confidence as he brings his chair closer to her, his larger frame looming over hers. Two minutes later, Kitty has shredded him to bits.
The real-life Mrs. Oppenheimer was, by all accounts, not the easiest woman to befriend and it’s clear that Emily Blunt relishes those moments. Nolan is not known for writing particularly good women characters and here too, Kitty Oppenheimer doesn’t really get the screentime to establish her complexity as well as one would hope, but she does get a couple of fantastic scenes that establish both her strength and her fearsome temper.
Nobel prize-winning physicist Rabi was one of Oppenheimer’s close friends and among those who stood by Oppenheimer even though the concept of building this bomb was distasteful to Rabi. When Oppenheimer tried to convince Rabi to move to Los Alamos and join the Manhattan Project, Rabi’s response was that he didn’t want to be part of something that took “three centuries of physics” and condensed it into a weapon of mass destruction (the exact sentence from American Prometheus is used as dialogue in Oppenheimer). However, despite his misgivings, he visited Los Alamos repeatedly and was among Oppenheimer’s most steadfast allies.
Krumholtz, who is best known for comedic roles like in the Harold and Kumar films and for being a regular on the television series Numb3rs, shows off his chops as a dramatic actor in Oppenheimer. It’s no mean feat to hold one’s own in scenes with Cillian Murphy.
There’s a meme going around which describes Nolan’s film as “Bingoheimer” because of the number of stars in the cast. Even the extras in this film are recognisable faces, so here are some of our favourite cameos from the film:
Gary Oldman as President Truman (famous for having described Oppenheimer as a “crybaby scientist”. In a meeting with the American president, Oppenheimer had said he felt that he had “blood on his hands” after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)
Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr (it’s a relief to see Branagh without his Hercule Poirot moustache, but there is a strong possibility that once Oppenheimer drops on a streaming platform, Branagh saying “Is it big enough?” will be memefied.)
Benny Safdie as Edward Teller (the director turns actor and he’s very good as the disgruntled scientist who wanted to build an even bigger bomb.)
Casey Affleck as Boris Pash (Nolan relishes just how menacing Affleck can be and Affleck is guaranteed to give you the chills in the scene that shows Pash interrogating Oppenheimer.)
Rami Malek as David Hill (it’s a tiny role, but a very satisfying one.)
Jack Quaid as Richard Feynman (the real-life Feynman was a livewire and according to American Prometheus, a very funny man. In the film, he is unfortunately reduced to being not much more than a dude who plays bongos when he’s happy.)
Olivia Thirlby as Lilli Hornig (Hornig was a feminist activist and one of the few women scientists on the Manhattan project. Unfortunately, Thirlby doesn’t get much screentime, but she does a few memorable scenes.)