There's a Good Reason Why 'Oppenheimer' Is Christopher Nolan's Longest Movie Ever

"Oppenheimer" hits theaters June 21, 2023. (Universal Pictures)

Christopher Nolan's 2010 movie "Inception" was nearly 2½ hours long. "The Dark Knight Rises" clocked in at 2:45. The World War II drama "Dunkirk" was his shortest, coming in at 1:46. When "Oppenheimer" is released on July 21, 2023, it will be his longest ever, running three hours long.

It's probably because J. Robert Oppenheimer's story doesn't end with the Manhattan Project.

The movie stars Cillian Murphy ("Inception") as Oppenheimer, along with Emily Blunt ("Sicario"), Robert Downey Jr. ("Iron Man"), Matt Damon ("Saving Private Ryan"), Kenneth Branaugh ("Dunkirk"), Josh Hartnett ("Black Hawk Down"), Rami Malek ("Mr. Robot") and Scott Grimes ("Band of Brothers").

It's also rare for Nolan's films to receive an R rating, which only two of his previous films, "Memento" and "Insomnia," received. Despite the violence depicted in his Batman movies and even the World War II combat scenes of "Dunkirk," those films are rated PG-13.

"Oppenheimer" is Nolan's autobiographical adaptation of authors Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's 2005 book "American Prometheus," which won the Pulitzer Prize. Sherwin spent 20 years researching the life and historical impact of Oppenheimer before Bird compiled it into a narrative.

Central to the book is Oppenheimer's work on the Manhattan Project, which created the atomic bomb during World War II.

Oppenheimer was more than the coordinator of the Manhattan Project; he was a theoretical physicist, born into a Jewish family that emigrated from Germany in the late 1800s. He knew Nazi Germany also had an atomic weapons program and was determined to be the first to build a bomb.

The United States was, of course, successful in building the first atomic bomb and used it to hasten an end to World War II, but Oppenheimer's story doesn't end with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He, and many other atomic scientists, were opposed to the use of the bomb at Nagasaki, believing it unnecessary.

After the war, Oppenheimer was named chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the United States Atomic Energy Commission. He was outspoken in his support of preventing nuclear proliferation, especially to the Soviet Union, fearing it would spark an arms race.

His opposition to the development of bigger nuclear weapons with increasingly deadly effects, especially that of the hydrogen bomb, put him at odds with American government officials and defense contractors during the Cold War.

He became a victim of the Red Scare, a period of persecution against suspected communist sympathizers and others with left-leaning political views, which saw his security clearance revoked in a series of secret hearings.

J. . Robert Oppenheimer (left) and Gen. Leslie R. Groves examining the remains of a steel tower at the Trinity test site in Alamogordo, New Mexico, September 1945. (Los Alamos National Laboratory)

Although Oppenheimer continued his work in nuclear and quantum physics, his days as a moral compass for American nuclear weapons policy were ended. "The Father of the Atomic Bomb" spent the rest of his life branded a suspected spy for the Soviet Union.

It wasn't until 2022 that the United States admitted its error and reversed its 1954 decision to strip Oppenheimer of his clearances and prestige. Transcripts of the hearings, which were declassified in 2014, offered no evidence against him. Oppenheimer died in 1967 at the age of 62.

With all this in mind, Christopher Nolan's film likely isn't limited to the creation of the Manhattan Project. Its three-hour run time likely delves into the fallout of handing weapons of mass destruction to an American defense apparatus forever changed by a global war.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on LinkedIn.

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