“Oppenheimer” has burst into the race for the Oscars.
With the serious and urgent cultural fabric of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the philosophical measure of “The Tree of Life”, writer, director and producer Christopher Nolan’s chronicle of the creation of the most destructive weapon ever used is the most ambitious and vital piece of cinema in his career. Adapted from the book “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, “Oppenheimer” tells the complicated and morally heavy story of American scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer who led the effort to develop the atomic bomb.
Nolan and his stellar acting ensemble have amassed 27 Oscar nominations collectively throughout their careers. Irish actor Cillian Murphy, who plays the titular scientist, is one of those who, surprisingly, didn’t find one. With a dry wit and feminist charm that makes him the science version of Michael Fassbender in “Shame,” Murphy is an effective vehicle for guiding the viewer through tons of scientific terminology. Plus, his tour de force performance, which is definitely in consideration for Best Actor, is best showcased when it showcases the emotional impact such a creation can have on a person. Leading actors from top competitive picture actors, especially biopics, have been consistently recognized over the past decades in Oscar history (see Benedict Cumberbatch for “The Imitation Game” or Christian Bale for “American Hustle”). Murphy might find his time has come after decades of memorable turns in “28 Days Later” (2002) and “Breakfast on Pluto” (2006).
“Iron Man” himself, Robert Downey Jr., has the best chewing material among supporting players like Lewis Strauss, one of the founding commissioners of the US Atomic Energy Commission and a figure hostile to Oppenheimer after the development of the hydrogen bomb. Twice nominated for ‘Chaplin’ (1992) and ‘Tropic Thunder’ (2008), the role and awards journey could mimic Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’ (1991) and its supporting actor named Tommy Lee Jones who played Clay Shaw. Only one actor from a Nolan film has ever won and been nominated for Oscar recognition, Heath Ledger for “The Dark Knight”, coincidentally beating RDJ for “Thunder”. Very early in the awards race, only Robert DeNiro of Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” seems to be considered a viable contender after the film’s Cannes debut.
In what has been a constant critique of Nolan’s work, the women of “Oppenheimer” have very little influence on the central narrative. Oscar nominee Florence Pugh (“Little Women”) is arguably one of Hollywood’s most exciting actresses, and she’s relegated to a brief storyline about her emotional instability in her few onscreen minutes as Oppenheimer’s girlfriend and later mistress Jean Tatlock, a reimagined Marion Cotillard from “Inception.”
Emily Blunt, who is awaiting her first Oscar nomination after several snubs for ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ (2006), ‘A Quiet Place’ (2018) and ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ (2018), plays Kitty, Oppenheimer’s alcoholic wife, depressed enough to ask a family friend to pick up their baby for a while. However, during a critical cross-examination scene, Nolan offers Blunt the opportunity to show off the skills and biting line deliveries she has displayed throughout her career. With a smirk and swag, Blunt will finally be able to land her first supporting actress nomination, especially in a movie that’s a contender on every level.
Nolan himself received five Oscar nominations during his career – ‘Memento’ (2001) for original screenplay, ‘Inception’ (2010) for original screenplay and best picture and ‘Dunkirk’ (2017) for direction and picture. His second directing nomination is within reach in what I would call the most “un-Nolan” film he has ever made. The box office and good reviews will only help Universal secure their first statuette for one of the 21st century’s premier filmmakers (it would also help keep them happy to make more movies with them in the future). One notable point: An “Oscar hat-trick” of the winning picture, director, and screenplay has only been achieved nine times, most recently by the Daniels for “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
Technical artists will also be highly competitive in their respective races, including production design (Ruth De Jong, Claire Kaufman), photography (Hoyte van Hoytema), costumes (Ellen Mirojnick), editing (Jennifer Lame), sound (Richard King, Michael W. Mitchell, Kevin O’Connell, Gary A. Rizzo), and original music (Ludwig Göransson).
Of all the films screened so far this year, Nolan’s film is one of two films that could have all the key ingredients to win the most coveted Oscar award. He’ll be a colossal guild player (watch out for the SAG set), and regional critics might make him a darling in the precursor season. The ongoing strikes could have a knock-on effect on movies releasing in the last few months, as their teams won’t be able to promote them in the same way as previous titles.
“Barbenheimer” may be an internet sensation, but only one resonates with Oscar voters, and that’s the one without a rose. It’s good; pink will do all the dollars.
Of Nolan’s previous 11 films, only three were excluded from the Oscars – his debut “Following” (1998), “Insomnia” (2002) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012).
Check out the latest Oscar predictions at Variety Circuit of rewards.