20 Movies to Check Out Before You See Oppenheimer

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20 Movies to Check Out Before You See Oppenheimer

Christopher Nolan’s next theatrical installment Oppenheimer hits theaters later this month. Described by star of the film Cillian Murphy as Nolan’s “magnum opus,” it is hard not to feel the anticipation of this summer’s next mega-project. The film, inspired by the biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, depicts the life and chronicle of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a renowned physicist whose work led to the discovery and creation of the world’s first atomic bomb.

Oppenheimer holds a star-studded cast, perhaps the most stacked of the year, including: Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Emily Blunt as his wife Katherine Oppenheimer, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Robert Downey Jr., Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, Josh Peck, Casey Affleck, Jack Quaid, and many more.

Whether it’s a historical biopic, a massive scientific discovery, a wartime story not set in the battlefield, or a movie that shows the hazards of nuclear missiles, here are 20 films to check out before you see Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.

Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Columbia Pictures

One of the more obvious inclusions of this list is Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 political satire film Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Set during the Cold War era, tensions are high between the United States and the Soviet Union, with a potential outbreak of nuclear war looming ahead. We follow a deranged US Air Force General who desires a press of the nuclear button, as well as the US President and his team figuring out ways to prevent such an occurrence.

Regarded as one of the all-time great political satires, Kubrick is able to bring out ironically comic performances from his actors. The film is set in only four locations. One of them being the iconic War Room consisting of a large circular desk, ring lights hanging above, and lots and lots of shadows. One of Kubrick’s earliest and most-acclaimed, Dr. Strangelove should definitely be on your list of films to watch before Oppenheimer releases in theaters July 21st.

Related: How the 1960s Created the Dark Comedy Movie

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Oil drenched Lewis in the plains of There Will Be Blood
Paramount Vantage

Although it isn’t a biopic, a wartime flick, or a massive scientific discovery, There Will Be Blood is still worth checking out if the topics and tone of Oppenheimer excite you. Released in 2007 by director Paul Thomas Anderson, this film is set in the early-20th century Southern California and follows the life of Daniel Playview (masterfully performed by Daniel Day-Lewis), a ruthless, ambitious, independent oil digger, prosecutor, and self-made millionaire. It is loosely based on the novel Oil! written by American author Upton Sinclair, with many differences spanning the adaptation.

While seemingly having the back of his crew, Daniel loses a sense of himself, his family, and comes to grasp with his Faith through his merciless pursuit of money, power and oil. There Will Be Blood is a classic Capitalist tale. Yes, America is a country where we have the pursuit of happiness, the ability to create a business and build on that business, but this film begs the question: Is financial freedom and overwhelming power worth the seemingly inevitable moral failures along the way?

Dunkirk (2017)

warner bros. pictures
SF Studios

If there is one Christopher Nolan film you should watch before Oppenheimer hits theaters, it should definitely be his 2017 World War II epic Dunkirk. It chronicles the true story of the Battle of Dunkirk in May of 1940, where Germany advanced their regime into France, trapping hundreds of thousands of Allied troops on the beaches of Dunkirk, leaving them as sitting ducks. Like all of Nolan’s films, time plays a huge factor in this film, but more importantly, the use of different perspectives to tell a story, a tool Nolan utilizes again and again and that can be expected in Oppenheimer.

Dunkirk is broken up into three different perspectives/timelines. The first one is called “The Mole” which takes place over one week. It tells the story of the physical solders on the beach as they await evacuation. The second is “The Sea” which takes place over one day and follows My. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and he sails a rescue boat in an attempt to help rescue some of the soldiers on the beach. The third and final perspective is called “The Air” which takes place over one hour. It follows the aerial combat between British and German air forces. The main character we follow is Ferrier (Tom Hardy) as we watch him weave in and out of dogfights.

The Pianist (2002)

Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman in a scene from The Pianist
BAC Films/Tobis Film/Syrena Entertainment Group/Pathé  Distribution

Get out your tissues for this next film because Roman Polanski’s 2002 biographical war drama The Pianist stands as one of the more disturbing and devastating films of the 21st century. Based on the memoir of the same name, The Pianist follows the life of Polish-Jewish man Władysław Szpilman (Adrien Brody) during WWII, who holds a very special talent for playing the piano. This movie feels like an honest portrayal of the Holocaust, with Nazi forces separating Szpilman from his family and throwing him in the Warsaw Ghetto.

The Pianist‘s strength rests on the shoulders of actor Adrien Brody, who provides us with a career-defining performance. For this role, Brody became the youngest actor to win Best Actor in a Leading Role at the Academy Awards. With music portrayed as a symbol of hope, Szpilman uses piano symphonies to find solace and peace within himself, as well as with his enemies. As a biography and a wartime film, it pairs well to give this a watch before Oppenheimer.

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Russell Crowe as John Nash and Jennifer Connelly as Alicia Nash
Universal Pictures.

Another biopic, A Beautiful Mind is about a man named John Nash, played by Russell Crowe, who reaches incredible achievements in the field of mathematics despite his ongoing battle with schizophrenia. Nash has an extremely analytical brain. His biggest contributions are in the field of game theory, developing a concept called Nash Equilibrium.

Basically, “Nash equilibrium is a concept in game theory where the optimal outcome is when there is no incentive for players to deviate from their initial strategy. The players have knowledge of their opponent’s strategy and still will not deviate from their initial chosen strategies because it remains the optimal strategy for each player.” We see a practical way of this playing out when Nash, along with some peers, are at a bar and want to try and get with a beautiful blonde they see. Nash shuts it down, saying that they can’t all get the girl, and when they get denied, the friends will turn the cold shoulder. Essentially, the way to win this little game is to not approach the woman at all.

A Beautiful Mind is a glorious portrayal of a man seeking triumph in mathematics and his schizophrenia, and succeeding at both.

The Imitation Game (2014)

The Imitation Game cast

The Imitation Game (2014) tells another tale of mathematical achievement. The Nazis has implemented a new communication device called the Enigma, which protects commercial and military communication. Essentially, it sends out codes that are nearly impossible to decipher. In response, a British intelligence agency recruits a group of men, and one woman, who are considered top of their field in mathematics and probability to attempt and decipher the code, thus being able to know what the Nazis are saying to each other, leading to leverage in the war. One of those men is the man whom this film is about: Alan Turing, a British homosexual mathematician, and logician. Perhaps you have heard of the Turing Test? This is the spawn of that procedure.

The Imitation Game is an inspiring tale of the British’s fight against the Nazi regime, Turing’s battle against laws prohibiting acts of homosexuality, and Turing’s underdog story among his peers. Together, despite their differences, a group of young geniuses must work together to save the war, and the world.

Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden Figures
20th Century Fox

To end the trilogy of mathematicians, we have Hidden Figures, a 2016 biographical drama centered around a group of prestigious African-American female mathematicians whose work proved pivotal in NASA’s involvement of the Space Race of the 1960s. Directed by Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures follows three specific women: Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) as they battle through ostracization and technological achievement, much like Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Each woman has their own contribution.

Katherine calculated the trajectories of many space missions. If any calculation was slightly off, the men embarking on the mission would float aimlessly into deep space. Dorothy climbed the ranks as NASA’s first African-American supervisor. She was a master of computer programming, teaching her colleagues a language called FORTRAN. Mary became NASA’s first African American female engineer and played a huge part in the research of and science behind supersonic space travel.

There is so much about this film to make it great. From a fantastic cast, to a memorable score curated by Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams, to a wholesome, inspiring message, Hidden Figures has it all and deserves your viewership.

Related: 12 Movies to Watch That Celebrate Women’s History Month

Lincoln (2012)

Walt Disney Studios

Director Steven Spielberg and actor Daniel Day-Lewis collaborated for the 2012 historical drama and biopic Lincoln, which follows the life and career of the United States’ 16th president Abraham Lincoln. Specifically, Lincoln is the story of Honest Abe’s final months alive and his efforts to write and pass the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution, leading to the abolition of slavery. Much like Oppenheimer, we watch as two great, ambitious men set out to reach achievements that would change the world forever. The difference: Lincoln desired to end something terrible, while Oppenheimer desired to create something terrible.

As long as it is breathtaking, Lincoln is the epitome of a historical biopic. Daniel Day-Lewis adds to his unblemished resume one of the more profound performances of his career. His performance as Lincoln not only profoundly portrays Abe as the man he was, but was also adaptive to the time period in which the film takes place. Lincoln feels exhausted from the toll of the Civil War, with the weight of the future of the nation on his shoulders.

Gandhi (1982)

Ben Kingsley as Mahatma Gandhi with Gandhi's followers
Columbia Pictures

Perhaps there are no stories more inspiring than that of Mahatma Gandhi, an Indian social activist, leader, and politician. Gandhi, the 1982 Richard Attenborough-directed biopic about the man, does a solid job at providing a history lesson for those more ignorant of Gandhi’s life and accomplishments, as well as just being a thoroughly enjoyable watch overall. Gandhi played a major role in India’s fight for independence from British rule and acted as an advocate for nonviolent civil disobedience.

Gandhi’s life and work may get lost in translation through Eastern historical teachings, where studies in schools discuss the famous Salt March and not much more. Gandhi dives deeper into the life of the Indian activist, starting with his early life, when he resided in South Africa and faced racial discrimination. More than anything, Gandhi preaches the philosophy Mahatma set out to spread: nonviolent resistance, known as satyagraha. Serving as a great tribute to his legacy, Gandhi is worth taking a look at as Oppenheimer approaches.

Schindler’s List (1993)

The end scene of Schindler's List
Universal Pictures

Widely regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time and the #6 ranked film on IMDb, Schindler’s List is a phenomenal cinematic achievement. The 1993 Spielberg-directed historical drama stars Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler, a real life German man who saved the lives of more than a thousand Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. A good historical biopic is supposed to make you feel the weight of the time period and the significance of the story being told, and quite frankly, none do it better than Schindler’s List.

Apollo 13 (1995)

A scene from Apollo 13 (1995)
Universal Pictures

It could be argued that the two greatest recent achievements in technology are the creation of the atomic bomb and successfully completing a man mission to the moon. After the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 proved the impossible was in fact possible, NASA decided to try again the following year with the Apollo 13 mission. Things didn’t go so well. Apollo 13 is a 1995 film directed by Ron Howard which tells the true story of the third attempt at a lunar landing, where the mission was eventually deemed a failure after an oxygen tank on the spacecraft exploded. The mission was launched on April 11, 1970, with astronauts James Lovell (played by Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (played by Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (played by Kevin Bacon).

Atonement (2007)

Kiera Knightley as Cecilia and James McAvoy as Robbie
StudioCanal & Universal Pictures

What would pair as a great double-feature with Dunkirk (yes, because of the Dunkirk beach scene), Atonement is a 2007 romantic drama film with a World War II backdrop, directed by Pride & Prejudice director Joe Wright. It tells the story of a romantic relationship between Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy).

The love becomes complicated after Cecilia’s little sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan, who received an Oscar nomination for the role) constructs a lie about Robbie that convicts him of a crime he did not commit. It is a truly devastating romance. Over the course of several decades, their paths rarely cross again, and we are left in wonderment of what could have been if their souls intertwined for a lifetime.

The King’s Speech (2010)

Colin Firth as King George VI
The Weinstein Company

With an unprecedented 12 nominations and four wins (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay) at the 83rd Academy Awards in 2011, The King’s Speech is regarded as one of the greatest historical dramas ever made. It tells the story of King George VI of the United Kingdom (played by Colin Firth) and his battle of overcoming a speech impediment, despite his constant need to address and speak to his country. With the help of speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), they fight to overcome his inconvenient and uncomfortable stammer, while forming a unique bond. Speaking to a single person with a speech impediment is very difficult for most, but imagine having to address an entire country in a time of crisis, with the British Empire, American, Europe, and more listening.

The Darkest Hour (2017)

The Darkest Hour 2017
Universal Pictures / Focus Features

If you have been living under a rock and had no idea how terrific of an actor Gary Oldman is, then look no further than his 2017 masterclass in the Joe Wright-directed film The Darkest Hour. This film focuses on the story of the appointment of Winston Churchill as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II. It is rare when a biopic comes along that also is a genre-bender. Based on the trailer for Oppenheimer, it seems pretty conclusive that the film might fall under the category of thriller.

Darkest Hour also plays that role. While, yes, it is informative and provides a good history lessons, like all biopics should, it is also electrifying and a heart-rate increaser. In a time when other decision-makers around him wanted to play the safe game and strike a deal with Hitler and the Nazi party, Churchill wanted to fight the opposition, daring to be great, dangerous, and superior.

Grave of the Fireflies (1989)

A scene from Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies is a 1989 animated film directed by Isao Takahata and produced by Studio Ghibli. In the final months of WWII, American bombers light up several cities of Japan with aerial attacks, creating fires too big to contain. One of those is the city of Kobe, home of the two siblings we follow throughout the story, Seita (a 14-year-old boy) and Setsuko (a four-year-old girl). In the aftermath of the bombings, they are left homeless and separated from their family.

Together, they must endure and survive, struggling to come across food, water, shelter, and other essentials. Poignant, emotionally powerful, and just flat out sad, Grave of the Fireflies is a visual poem that depicts the devastation of large, explosive weapons in the heat of war.

A Hidden Life (2019)

Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures

Terrence Malick’s most recent feature film is a 2019 WWII-set historical drama called A Hidden Life. It is a poetic visual spectacle that tells the true story of Franz Jägerstätter (played by August Diehl), an Austrian man who refused to pledge loyalty to Adolf Hitler, refusing to fight for the Nazi regime. A story of persistence, will power, and the strength to stand high on your morals, Franz remains strong with his decisions despite complications with the authorities, his community, and his family.

Like all of Malick’s films, the world is open for exploration. The camera is a roaming entity, free to swoop and peek and explore everything around it. It almost feels like us, the audience, act as the characters’ guardian angel, protecting them from the dramas they encounter and endure. A Hidden Life is no different.

Thirteen Days (2000)

Thirteen Days (2000)
New Line Cinema

Since the birth of the atomic bomb in 1945, only two times have they actually been used as a weapon: the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings made by the United States at the end of the second World War in the same year. Other than that, there have been no other nuclear missiles detonated on civilian land. However, at one point, we were very close to nuclear war in an event called the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Thirteen Days is a 2000 historical drama directed by Roger Donaldson that depicts the 13-day confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. When J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted the scripture Bhagavad Gita with “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” he was self-aware that the creation of the atomic bomb could very well become a destroyer of worlds. Thirteen Days is a very real, intense look at such an event almost occurring and is definitely worth the watch.

Life is Beautiful (1997)

A scene from Life Is Beautiful
Cecchi Gori Group


Some movies change the fabric of your mind. Some movies shift your soul. Some take both and tear them to shred. Life is Beautiful is one of those movies. It is a 1997 Italian tragicomedy directed by and starring Roberto Benigni as an Italian-Jewish man named Guido. In the wake of the Holocaust during World War II, Guido and his family get sent to a concentration camp. To deal with the horrors, Guido uses his imagination and humor to curate a fun little game for his young son, easing the time they’re facing until their inevitable death.

Behind all the laughs lay the horrors. His son Giosuè remains ignorant of what everything around him means, thanks to the jokes and games implored by his father. If Guido and Giosuè ever got separated, there was a reason for it instilled by Guido for Giosuè. A protective shield, if you will. Life is Beautiful is a gut-wrenching, inspiring wartime flick that shows there is always light to shine in the darkness, even if you have to shine the light yourself.

Radioactive (2020)

Amazon Studios

Based on the illustrated biography Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, Radioactive (2020) is a character study that chronicles the life of Polish Nobel Prize-winning physicist and chemist Marie Curie (played by Rosamund Pike) as she makes groundbreaking discoveries in the sub-field of radioactivity. In her efforts, she discovered two natural elements: polonium (Po) and radium (Ra).

The film is set in 1890s Paris and packs a fantastic performance from Rosamund Pike. Throughout the film, her work is overlooked specifically because she is a woman. At the time, science was considered a man’s field and women were often looked down upon and not taken as seriously when they tried to participate. Things changed for the better for Marie when she meets her future husband and fellow renowned scientist, Pierre (played by Sam Riley). He is impressed by her and after inviting her to his laboratory, they start becoming serious research partners, and inevitably lovers, spending countless hours together growing their relationship and reaching new scientific heights.

The Aviator (2004)

Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett in The Aviator
Miramax Films

To end the list, we have another American biographical drama, The Aviator. Iconic cinematic duo Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio are the engine of this film. The Aviator follows the life of Howard Hughes, an aviator, filmmaker, and industrialist. Hughes was an ambitious man of many passions. A combination of a career in aviation as well as his desire to revolutionize the film industry, with projects such as Hell’s Angels and The Outlaws, took up much of his time. Through his pursuit of greatness, he struggled with many mental health issues, including Obsessive-Compulsize Disorder (OCD) and anxiety.

On top of Leo, we were gifted stellar performances from Kate Beckinsale and Cate Blanchett, who went on to win the award for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards for the role. With many Scorsese-DiCaprio collaborations under the books, The Aviator stands out as one of their best.

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