Let’s take a step back from the ‘Barbenheimer’ phenomenon. It’s been wonderfully warming to see a buoyed love of cinema and hats off to whatever films inspire it.
Such furore can whip up the superlatives into a chain reaction that ignites the world. Extracted from the contrast of its peculiarly pink playmate, Oppenheimer bulges.
Based on the biographical book American Prometheus, Christopher Nolan’s latest movie seeks to tell the story of ‘father of the atomic bomb’ J. Robert Oppenheimer, both objectively and subjectively (as marked by shifts from black and white to colour).
The result is a three hour movie that packs in as much context as it can until the pressure splits the movie into three distinctive parts.
When viewed from a distance the big ticket winning items in Oppenheimer are clear. It is gorgeously shot with each scene framed and blocked in ways to draw you in or keep you are arms length as the story requires.
The sound design – people often complain of inaudible dialogue in Nolan movies – is fine tuned.
The exceptional use of silence during the New Mexico Trinity test explosion scene creates far more devastating doom than the bass heavy parps that Nolan is often associated with.
Another obvious winner is the standout performances, not least yet another mesmerising turn from Cillian Murphy as the titular subject matter.
Nolan’s depictions of a man who purportedly regretted the impact his work had on the world strives to strike a balance between what is known and creative conjecture.
Murphy takes the ambiguity at the heart of the story and wraps himself up with it. His Oppenheimer is at turns ambitious and decisive, but also naïve and hand-wringing.
What Is Oppenheimer About?
Murphy’s ability to hold your focus is what keeps the movie alive during the turgid opening hour.
Nolan follows a chronological core with clear shifts from early years, the Manhattan project, and the 1954 hearing in which Oppenheimer’s security clearance was revoked.
Much of the material used in the kangaroo court scenes is derived from his pre-Manhattan project days, but the hour spent filling in this detail is an exercise in tedium.
Oddly enough the clock-watching brought on by the early years isn’t the content, but the way it is presented.
Nolan deploys quick cuts and fast scenes which chop the dialogue into trailer-esque snippets.
With so many players and circumstances to introduce, Nolan whips through so fast that for a long time it never actually feels like the movie has started.
Only Murphy’s magnetism manages to hold it all together.
The mid-section shines brightest, and not least due to the jaw dropping Trinity test explosion that is the centrepiece of the film.
During the second hour Nolan keeps our focus almost exclusively on the here and now, allowing his cast room to breathe.
Matt Damon shines as the General in charge of Oppenheimer who slowly comes to respect him, and also benefits from several long dialogue scenes that bed in his character.
The amount of content that is sifted through to make the third act a courtroom drama causes issues.
On the harsher end of the scale you could say the movie descends into ‘men in a room talking’. But then look to movies like 12 Angry Men or any good courtroom drama to see that this isn’t an Achilles heel.
Oppenheimer Official Trailer
Is Oppenheimer Worth Watching?
Nolan tries to prevent his last hour becoming a talk-fest by cutting up the 1954 hearing with other timelines, including a Senate confirmation hearing where the actions against Oppenheimer are picked apart.
Yet this is counterintuitive, as the flitting from one bit to another undermines the drama in the scenes at hand.
Again, it is a standout performance from Robert Downey Jr. as the man with a point to prove that keeps the whirling parts together.
Speaking of ‘men in a room talking’, there is little doubt that women are not well served here.
Florence Pugh’s turn as a Communist Party card carrier and someone with whom Oppenheimer reportedly had an affair finds herself reduced to nudity that is jarringly out of place when it occurs; a waste of her talents.
Emily Blunt elevates her role from ‘dutiful wife who drinks’ to one which bites with excellent steel during key scenes. Her agency is limited but she battles through it.
The skill of Nolan’s craft is undoubtable. His ability to create ‘event cinema’ is well-earned and continues here.
Oppenheimer at its best is peak Nolan, with the coalescence between cinematography, sound design, and Grade A cast fusing into something all the brighter.
The occasionally criticised lack of Japanese perspective cements the sensation that these people were detached from the moral reality of their decisions. They could, so they did.
Yet Oppenheimer is crushed under the weight of itself, with sporadic bursts of untethered content ejected through the first and last hours.
There is a great story to be told here, but like its subject matter, Oppenheimer is the sum of questionable decisions.
Words by Mike Record
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