3.75 out of 5
Neat

Purrr....

  • Stellar performances
  • Thought-provoking ethical questions
  • Amazing recreation of atomic bomb test

Hisss!

  • Too dense
  • Puts spectacle over story

Studio
Universal Pictures
Director
Christopher Nolan
Genre
Biography, Drama, History
Rated
R
Theatrical Release Date (NA)
Jul 21, 2023
Film Length
3hrs
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Filed Under

It is difficult to imagine a movie about J. Robert Oppenheimer that wouldn’t be entertaining. Based on American Prometheus, a 2005 biography of Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Oppenheimer has a rich source of compelling content. In many ways, the movie delivers. In particular, Cillian Murphy’s performance as Oppenheimer is beyond impressive and the scenes of the Trinity bomb test stand out. However, the movie feels dense and overfull, and it may have delivered a bit more if it had promised less.

A Complex Personal Journey

Oppenheimer - Screenshot

The movie can be divided into three chapters: pre-Los Alamos, the 1945 Trinity nuclear test, and Oppenheimer’s secret 1954 security hearing. However, there is nothing neat about this division. Sometimes, the intermingling of timelines appears to reveal the sources of Oppenheimer’s beliefs, but more often the various threads are only loosely interwoven, through a montage or flashback. This chronological experimentation will be familiar to fans of Director Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Interstellar, and Dunkirk.

Though decades of living with nuclear weapons have inured most of us to the ethical dilemmas, Nolan successfully captures the gravity of the situation faced by the scientists working in Los Alamos with the aid of Ludwig Göransson’s score and a powerful recreation of the first atomic weapon test. That in itself would be enough to create an impressive and thought-provoking full-length film, but Oppenheimer contains much more.

Nolan recreates scenes from Oppenheimer’s time studying in Europe and early academic career as well as lengthy testimony from the post-war secret hearing over Oppenheimer’s security clearance for suspected Communist Party activities. We meet Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), Oppenheimer’s lover, whose ties to the Communist Party were used as evidence of Oppenheimer’s own leftist sympathies, and Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty (Emily Blunt). We witness Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, being questioned by the Senate committee in his confirmation hearings for the U.S. Secretary of Commerce about his associations with Oppenheimer. We see Oppenheimer meeting Neils Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), discussing the possibility of inadvertent world annihilation with Einstein (Tom Conti), and angering President Truman (a completely unrecognizable Gary Oldman).

If that sounds like a lot of people and situations to cover, it is. The movie has a total runtime of three hours, and it feels like it, especially in the last third of the movie where a feeling of “There’s more?” may arise. This is in contrast to movies like The Imitation Game, in which Alan Turing works to crack the Nazi’s secret communication code. It, too, follows the protagonist from his days as an academic to his work for the government, while also interweaving scenes of his personal life. It’s a shorter film and much more straightforward in its storytelling, despite a questionable characterization of Turing himself. Similarly, Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie, Lincoln, focuses on the president’s attempt to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed in the last four months of his life. They say that less is more, and that may have helped here.

Admittedly, the intermingling of storylines gives the movie a modern, novel feel, but it can also make the movie confusing at times and leave some unsatisfying loose ends. Of course, those are in line with director Christopher Nolan’s style of storytelling.

Nolan’s Calling Cards

Oppenheimer - Screenshot

Aside from the aforementioned use of time in the story structure, Nolan loves to explore big themes. Whether it’s the idea of justice in his Batman trilogy, our collective existence in Interstellar, or reality itself in Inception, he is not afraid to ponder such questions, and Oppenheimer fits the bill. Of course, the most obvious questions concern how the world changes when humankind now has a weapon that can cause unfathomable destruction, and what Oppenheimer’s responsibilities are as its “father”. As the movie asks, how do you justify a man’s life?

Oppenheimer the man, played rivetingly by Nolan veteran Cillian Murphy, is as complex a person as any, being charismatic and concerned but also detached, loyal in his professional obligations but a womanizer in his personal life. The questions of what he truly believes and what his ethical and moral values are persist through much of the film, especially as he deals with loss and betrayal. He fits right in with Nolan’s other flawed protagonists, from the duality of Bruce Wayne and Batman to Inception’s Cobb, who is unable to face reality.

The whole cast turns in compelling performances as well. Nolan is once again able to find and/or attract actors who can embody the roles fully, even if some are only in the film for just one or two scenes. The meeting with President Truman stands out in this regard, but there are countless others that work just as well.

Powerful Soundtrack

The score, written by Ludwig Göransson (Tenet, Black Panther), fits the underlying mood perfectly and is sometimes integral to the storyline. The light moments in this movie are rare, so most often the music underlines the gravity of the situation. This leads to a powerful and at times discordant score, intensifying the emotional effects of Oppenheimer’s personal journey. 

The bomb test itself is notable for its lack of music—all we hear is Oppenheimer’s breathing. In the minutes leading up to it, there’s a progressively loud cacophony of strings as the final frantic preparations are made, but the explosion itself needs nothing else. The sheer power and weight of the world changing in an instant, wrought by man himself, expresses itself truly and utterly. It might be the most incredible explosion ever put to film for entertainment.

A Summer Spectacle

Oppenheimer - Screenshot

Nolan filmed the movie for IMAX, and even in a non-IMAX theater, the movie feels extra-large. The aforementioned recreation of the Trinity bomb test definitely needs the bigger screen for maximum impact on the viewer and is quite terrifying as a result, perhaps playing a role in Nolan’s decision to not show any scenes of the actual atomic bombs dropped on Japan.

At the same time, there are moments that exist only for the visual impact, without furthering the story. The depiction of Oppenheimer’s thoughts as swirling stars, billowing plumes, and sparkling particulates in particular felt cliché and unnecessary. Thankfully, their heavy use is mostly restricted to the first part of the film. There is also a scene in the third act where female nudity is used to emphasize Oppenheimer’s infidelity. However, her form is viewed from the perspective of a character other than Oppenheimer himself, which is unusual because the audience rarely sees events from anyone else’s perspective and certainly not in the abstract on top of that. It honestly feels like a vestige from an earlier draft of the script.

The End of the World

With Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan attempts to show us all facets of Oppenheimer and his fascinating life. However, even with a stellar cast and an awe-inspiring explosion anchoring the experience, there is simply too much going on. A tighter narrative with less spectacle might have helped him deliver a stronger film, but who am I to justify a director’s work?

An early screening provided for this review. Oppenheimer opens in theaters on July 21st, 2023. Tickets and showtimes information available on the official website.

Oppenheimer | New Trailer

About Bunny Dawson - Writer

In addition to her job as a coding shepherdess, Bunny is a fan of math, poodles, and hot sauce.

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