Oppenheimer: The Real Story is just one of a small handful of biographical documentaries released in 2023 to tie-in with Christopher Nolan’s big-screen epic. The best, NBC News companion documentary To End All War: Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb, has been confirmed to be included with the upcoming home release of Nolan’s film – but that one could stand on its own as a slick, stylish doc. It is this film, Oppenheimer: The Real Story, that feels more like a glorified DVD bonus feature. This is cheaply, quickly made, and offers little more than a run-through of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Wikipedia page.
With a cheesy score that feels like royalty free music from YouTube’s creator studio and pretty inconsistent visual and sound quality (and in some cases, volume) in both archive material and interviews, the film feels very amateur and slapped together pretty haphazardly. It’s difficult to find much information about the film’s production online, and that never bodes well for this kind of straight-to-DVD doc. It appears to be from the same director of the cringe-inducingly poor His Majesty King Charles III.
While Nolan’s film made its’ three hour runtime feel like nothing, this doc’s plodding 100mins are often incredibly tedious. Some of the interviewees, void of any charisma, ramble on and on to the point the film feels like a school lecture that you repressed from your childhood. It is tremendously dull. Easily the most interesting interviewee is Kai Bird (pictured), bonafide Oppenheimer expert and biographer who co-wrote the tome American Prometheus on which Nolan’s film was based. But all of his insight here in The Real Story can be found, better developed, in the book.
There’s some interesting archive footage and recordings of some of the principal figures of the Oppenheimer tale, including that well-known footage of an old, broken Oppenheimer reciting the Bhagavad Gita, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before elsewhere. If you’re interested in archive materials around the nuclear story and how they can be far better used onscreen, check out The Atomic Cafe.
Oppenheimer: The Real Story is a slog. It is incredibly uninvolving and at times cold, and even if you do find yourself engrossed, you’ll soon enough be distracted by a clunky edit or shift in visual or sound quality. There is no information here that can’t be found in other, better documentaries, or the aforementioned American Prometheus book. If you’ve seen Nolan’s epic and want to learn more about Oppenheimer, look elsewhere.