One of the most outstanding directors of today, Christopher Nolan, is returning to the big screen again, but this time it will be a little different. Nolan is best known for science fiction stories, especially ones that experiment with time and space: the amnesia in Memento, the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream structure of Inception, and the cosmic communication and time travel of Interstellar. However, he has occasionally gone for more down-to-earth, realistic fare, such as the war film Dunkirk. With his latest film, Nolan will venture into a genre he has not yet attempted: the biopic.
Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer will follow the life and work of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the Father of the Atomic Bomb. Because it’s an unusual subject for the director, questions abound. Will it be purely nonfiction? Will it put a sci-fi spin on the story? Will he play with space and time as he has been known to do with his previous films? Although we don’t yet know, one thing is for certain: it’s going to be big. A press release from Universal describes the film as an “epic thriller,” and the film’s budget is reportedly $100 million, an enormous sum for a biopic. That’s almost ten times the budget of The Imitation Game, another WWII-era biopic from 2014.
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Here is what we know so far.
Oppenheimer: The Plot
Oppenheimer will be based on the New York Times best-selling book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a 721-page biography of the man who led the United States’ effort to develop the atomic bomb during WWII. Its title refers to the Greek myth of Prometheus, the Titan who defied the gods by stealing fire from Mount Olympus and giving it to humanity, providing the spark that began human civilization and separated us from the other animals.The month after Oppenheimer’s atom bomb was dropped on Japan, the popular magazine Scientific Monthly wrote of the new weapon that “Modern Prometheans have raided Mount Olympus again and have brought back for man the very thunderbolts of Zeus.” As the comparison between Oppenheimer’s achievements and the myth of Prometheus shows, his story is one of tremendous historical and symbolic significance.
As one of the country’s leading theoretical physicists, J. Robert Oppenheimer was recruited in 1942 to the government’s Manhattan Project, housed in the secretive Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico. There, Oppenheimer led the project to develop the world’s first atomic bomb, which has since earned him the nickname “The Father of the Atom Bomb.” The laboratory was surrounded by a military presence with strict security precautions, but these were all for naught; one of the scientists was a Soviet spy, and he ended up stealing the bomb plans and giving them to Russia, who used them to develop their own atomic weapons.
After the Manhattan Project was disbanded and the Cold War began, Oppenheimer was horrified by the nuclear arms race. He became a leading member of the United States Atomic Energy Commission and fought hard to limit nuclear proliferation. For this and other reasons, he was targeted by Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Commission as a communist sympathizer. In 1967, he died at the age of 62 from lung cancer caused by a lifetime of chain-smoking.
Oppenheimer’s life is full of interesting stories and thrilling potential: developing the atomic bomb, Soviet spies, fighting nuclear proliferation, and being targeted during the Red Scare, any of which could provide fantastic material for Christopher Nolan’s biopic. Although Nolan is never predictable, the cast list hints that the film will cover several periods in Oppenheimer’s life — at the very least, the Manhattan Project and some of his later persecution for supposed communist sympathies.
The film’s cast is so star-studded it almost sounds like a joke. The lead role of J. Robert Oppenheimer will be played by Cillian Murphy, a Nolan regular (The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Dunkirk). Oppenheimer’s German-American wife Kitty will be played by Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow, A Quiet Place), while Florence Pugh (Midsommar, Little Women, Hawkeye) will play Jean Tatlock, a communist writer who had a romantic relationship with Oppenheimer. Frank Oppenheimer, J. Robert’s younger brother and a prominent particle physicist (who was not a member of the Manhattan Project) will be played by Dylan Arnold, and Frank’s wife Jackie will be played by Emma Dumont (The Gifted).
A large portion of the cast is comprised of roles related to the Manhattan Project, so this will obviously be a major focus of the movie. The military director of the Manhattan Project, Leslie Groves, will be played by Matt Damon (Saving Private Ryan, The Departed, The Martian). Edward Teller, one of the Manhattan Project’s most brilliant minds, will be played by Benny Safdie (Licorice Pizza, co-director of Uncut Gems). Michael Angarano (The Forbidden Kingdom, This Is Us) plays Robert Serber, a physicist and a prominent member of the Manhattan Project whom the New York Times had called “the intellectual midwife at the birth of the atomic bomb.”
Danny Deferrari (Shiva Baby) plays Enrico Fermi, a giant of the physics world who worked on the Manhattan Project and created the world’s first nuclear reactor. Josh Peck (Drake & Josh, 2012’s Red Dawn) plays Kenneth Bainbridge, a physicist on the Manhattan Project and director of the Trinity Test, the world’s first nuclear weapon test; after witnessing the successful atomic explosion, Bainbridge reportedly remarked to Oppenheimer, “Now we are all sons of bitches,” and later became dedicated to ending all nuclear tests across the world. Gustaf Skarsgård (Westworld, Vikings) plays Hans Bethe, head of the Theoretical Division of the Manhattan Project and instrumental in weaponizing the atom bomb; he later became a major figure opposed to nuclear proliferation.
Two other minor scientists in the Manhattan Project are Ernest Lawrence, played by Josh Hartnett (Black Hawk Down, 30 Days of Night, Penny Dreadful), and Seth Neddermeyer, played by Devon Bostick (Diary of a Wimpy Kid).
One big name has been confirmed for the period after WWII: Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man, Zodiac, Sherlock Holmes) will play Lewis Strauss, the chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission who called a hearing to revoke Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1954, largely considered an act of unfounded anti-Communist hysteria. So far, there have not yet been any other confirmed characters who played a part in Oppenheimer’s post-Manhattan Project life, so it’s possible this will only be a small part of the movie.
However, there is a long list of actors whose role in the film is still being kept under wraps: Rami Malek, Casey Affleck, Kenneth Branagh, Gary Oldman, Dane DeHaan, Jack Quaid, Matthew Modine, Olli Haaskivi, Alden Ehrenreich, David Krumholtz, David Dastmalchian, Jason Clarke, Louise Lombard, Scott Grimes, Christopher Denham, James D’Arcy, David Rysdahl, Guy Burnet, Harrison Gilbertson, Matthias Schweighöfer, Alex Wolff, Tony Goldwyn, Trond Fausa Aurvåg, Josh Zuckerman, and Olivia Thirlby.
Release Date and Production
Warner Bros. Pictures
Shooting took place between February and May 2022, and the film is currently scheduled to release in theaters on July 21, 2023. As is usual with Nolan, it will be screened from film (not digital) in IMAX, 70mm, and 35mm formats. According to Variety, it will need to make at least $400 million to break even.
Oppenheimer will be Nolan’s first film not to be distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures since Memento (2000). An avowed cinematic elitist and perfectionist, Nolan refused in 2020 to release Tenet on streaming. He insisted on a theatrical release even during the height of the COVID pandemic, leading the film to a predictable financial failure. After further tension over Warner Bros. Pictures’ continued commitment to releasing films on their streaming service HBO Max, the director severed a decades-long relationship with Warner last year. Instead, he has now partnered with Universal Pictures to release Oppenheimer exclusively in theaters.