Oppenheimer is a horror movie about the two most devastating blasts in human history. Yet, it’s only partially about that event, centering its gaze on the title character. Robert Oppenheimer was a hyper-focused professor and scientist of extreme intelligence. He earned a bachelor’s in chemistry from Harvard and a Ph.D. from the University of Göttingen. But taking a more introspective look reveals a man that was not so perfect. One of the most significant figures in history, he was an individual of many successes and infamous for the most regretful of failures. But Oppenheimer alone is not the solely responsible boogeyman he may seem to be at first. Instead, he was a tool used by the powers that be to achieve a horrifying goal, then discarded when his usefulness was no longer required as his ties to communist ideology were (conveniently) put back into the spotlight.

Hollywood has mined a lot of material (and a lot of profits) from the retelling of World War II. It’s a story so vast that it can’t be recounted in a single project. Thus, its chapters are large enough to be whole stories themselves. Steven Spielberg directed both Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), neither of which bump into each other’s real estate. There’s Das Boot to Inglourious Basterds, Pearl Harbor, Christopher Nolan’s own Dunkirk, and beyond – seemingly no shortage of volumes, footnotes, retellings, and rewriting of history for this hellacious period. There’s been several shows and movies centered on just the Manhattan Project, the infamous research endeavor that would bring us the Atomic Bomb. Yet, those shows often covered the events in broad strokes, aided by ensemble casts and a bird’s eye view.

Oppenheimer, however, zeroes in on the title character’s life, refusing to depict or engage in the more well-known landmark events just beyond the scope of these characters. That isn’t better exemplified than by the fact that this movie does have an explosion, but not quite what you’d expect, in an attempt to minimize the on-screen carnage and double down on the fact that this is not a war movie – it’s a biopic. What Christopher Nolan accomplishes here is a movie that will go down as the definitive magnifying glass on the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), for better or worse.

Now, that doesn’t mean that everything here is entirely accurate or that there isn’t a level of bias afforded to Oppenheimer’s legacy. Nolan seems to have some administration for the man at least, painting his pursuit to advance science, including a friendly rivalry with Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), in a mostly positive light. Oppenheimer’s many flings and rendezvous are less positive, establishing the man as a womanizer who only considers the feelings of his partners well after it’s too late. These relationships feel raw and intimate, appropriately accompanied by multiple sex scenes whose awkward placement in the movie is part of the point.

One such scene is so intrusive and abrasive, personifying the turmoil these characters’ sex lives have enacted on their psyche. Florence Pugh adds a steamy temperature to the otherwise cold film before Emily Blunt’s quiet apprehension threatens to tear away at the facade that Oppenheimer and the rest of the boys club have pulled over their unscrupulous actions. The dual love interests are staged to highlight Oppenheimer’s pragmatism, his ego, and how short-sighted he is toward the consequences of his actions. Boy, wouldn’t something like that come in handy on the verge of nuclear warfare…

The film is similar to many of Nolan’s past works, which feature non-linear storytelling, alternating between the events that led to the bombing and the aftermath that preceded it. Robert Downey Jr. largely occupies the latter, starring as war-mongering Lewis Strauss. Strauss acts as a gateway to Oppenheimer’s past, here to retell and emphasize what led the U.S. military to recruit Robert for the Manhattan Project. Yet, how much can you trust the testimony of a businessman playing politics? Downey is captivating here, seemingly re-energized to tackle dramatic material that directly contrasts with what made his Marvel run successful. Downey has called Oppenheimer the best movie of his career, and he may be right.

Also drawing out conflicting emotions is Matt Damon as (future) General Leslie Groves. You don’t want to like the guy or what he’s here to do, but he’s at least charismatic and funny enough to bring some levity in these scenes. He and Cillian Murphy almost have the energy of classmates in college. Speaking of Murphy, he’s likely headed to a best actor nomination, interpreting Oppenheimer as a man who is cold/distant/emotionally reserved – until the bombs drop, and he becomes overwhelmed with guilt. That surmises the theme of the film. The movie is about a brilliant man who is too emotionally stunted to foresee how bad he’d feel about the casualties it would take to end the war in this manner. I believe Oppenheimer when he signals that he feels guilty for what happened – but you don’t have to feel sorry for him.

In fact, is there anyone (on screen, at least) worth feeling sorry for? Nolan depicts the film’s events in precise detail but from a detached view, trying delicately to hit the balance of immersive depiction without attempting to endorse what’s going on. Instead, this tale is about mood and how the tides change with time. When Oppenheimer and his team successfully complete their project, leading to a ludicrous amount of casualties, they’re treated like they just won the Super Bowl. But then, slowly, the mood changes, and it’s suddenly not so cool to be a member of the Manhattan Project. But this feels less like an organic demonstration of justice and more like the strategic implementation of a scapegoat. Who believes that the destructive utilization of Nuclear Fission wouldn’t have been achieved even if Oppenheimer refused his duties? An always welcome Gary Oldman turns up, having a ball in a manic portrayal of President Truman, to essentially hammer home this idea – that the United States would have achieved its goal by any means necessary.

It’s interesting how Nolan’s movies play with time. Not just in the sense of alternating between two different periods in history but by how he escalates the movie’s events. Such as when Oppenheimer first begins his physics lecture to a young student in an empty classroom. But before you know it, the class has filled up with students during the lecture as a subtle illustration of the passage of time. Less subtle is when our protagonist begins his ascent up a wooden ladder towards his monstrous creation – but rather than have you witness a tedious climb, Nolan and editor Jennifer Lame (Yes, that’s her name) just jump cut to when Oppenheimer is near the top, the visual cue that this is now the metal portion of the ladder, not wood.

It’s a staple of Nolan’s films, to yadda yadda a lot of the frivolous stuff, which some may find annoying. But I appreciate a filmmaker who at least has some sense of urgency in his editing. Quality execution is the goal; this is a movie less concerned with moral perfection and more concerned with precision. The cinematography is quaint but vivid – the early events harboring a warm glow of American idealism contrasted with the grey reality of the post-war fallout. Some of the film’s most memorable imagery include ghastly horrific close-ups and an ominous depiction of Oppenheimer’s inner psyche. It’s been a while since a movie has made the stomping of a crowd feel terrifying.

The score often blends into the background but then ramps up to a fever pitch that perfectly encapsulates how frightening and tragic what we’re witnessing before our eyes. In its wake, I don’t think Christopher Nolan or anyone can do anything to absolve Robert Oppenheimer of his tragic legacy, nor does the movie ever really attempt to. He will forever be implicated in the hubris and callousness it takes to bring such destruction upon the world. It’s this darkness that, interestingly, made the Barbenheimer phenomenon such a fortuitous pop culture moment – J Robert Oppenheimer is no longer a man but a symbol of whatever you think of him and the American military. These views range from full-on support of the A-Bomb as a “necessary evil” to passionate rejection of a man whose greatest creation may have exemplified the worst aspects of the Military-Industrial Complex and jingoism.

On the flip side is our blonde, plastic friend, as Barbie herself exists as an amorphous symbol, bred to elicit polarizing opinions on gender, sex, beauty standards, and capitalism. How apropos that these two movies found each other, unabashedly made for profit but filled with enough depth to make the two projects endlessly fascinating. I enjoyed Barbie for its outstanding performances, excellent production design, and clever screenplay. Yet, not even Greta Gerwig’s imagination can outrun the sober reality the movie is attempting to dissect, landing on an ending that feels less like a celebration and more like uncertainty about what happens next. But isn’t it understandable that a feminist might not know the best way forward in a world where the power of capitalism and aggressive gender standards don’t appear to be going away anytime soon? Likewise, and ironically, Oppenheimer ends just as contemplatively as Barbie. Oppenheimer rose to the ranks as an idealist, a communist, and a leftist who felt he could change the status quo; “Why can’t professors unionize?” He wonders at one point. But by the end of his life, he’s left wondering if his accomplishments have doomed the world, setting the globe up as a living, breathing, ticking time bomb.

Oppenheimer is an outstanding film, no matter how troubling its subject matter, bolstered by an incredible, seemingly endless cast and intense direction. What plays on the screen is bold and striking, but what to take away from the pathos underneath is not so clear-cut. Some may even protest that the film’s climax is ultimately inspired by petty squabbles and pathetic attempts at crafting a legacy. I would say that’s richly hilarious and stupefying. Of course, such privileged men, aided by obscene power and influence, would feel so nakedly wounded by imagined slights. They’ll move heaven and earth to avenge slandering but aren’t moved an inch by Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the black rain, or the burning flesh.