Review: Oppenheimer

Don’t ask director Christopher Nolan how a car works. You will get an answer, but it will probably be elaborate and overcomplicated.

As Nazi Germany invades Poland, the United States turn to any solution to end the war. They turn to a theoretical physicist named Robert Oppenheimer, and so begins a secret arms race to create the most devastating weapon humanity has ever seen.

Director Christopher Nolan has become known for a mathematical, technological approach to movie-making, to a fault; he is not known for getting emotional resonance from his actors. In recent years, criticism has fallen on his overcomplication of storytelling ever since his magnum opus Inception in 2010. Oppenheimer seems to follow this trend… most certainly in the editing room.

Starring a massive cast of familiar faces: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Kenneth Branagh, Robert Downey Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, Jason Clarke, Rami Malek, the film is excellent in terms of cinematography, star power and performances.

But something about it… just doesn’t hit as hard as the likes of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, for example.

Cillian Murphy upon hearing his movie is up against Barbie.

To go brass tacks, first and foremost, is the film’s editing and overall structure. One may expect some shenanigans since Nolan’s Dunkirk was also edited in a peculiar way. But while that film was focused on a point in time (the battle of Dunkirk) and there was a through-line that kept the audiences connected to when events where happening… Oppenheimer is ultimately a linear story; the story of a man who invents the atom bomb and suffers from the consequences.

Why Nolan opted to rip up this linear story and stitch it all back together in an order that is only going to confuse audiences is hard to answer. Here, we have three different points in time: the weapon’s conception and construction, a trial used as a framing device, and another hearing set after all of the events (presented in black and white). Unlike Dunkirk, Oppenheimer has a lot of characters. It keeps introducing more of them. The jumping between time frames convolutes an already complicated and deeply conspiratorial plot. You need to be paying attention all the time. Registering everyone’s face, rank, and words immediately. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is surprisingly buried under the score, which plays too loudly in certain scenes.

If you came for the snazzy trailer (which is a beautiful trailer, in hindsight) and wanted to see a big bomb go boom, you may want to reassess your thoughts.

Oh, and there’s a surprising amount of sex. Not to be prudish, but there really didn’t seem to be any reason for it? Except maybe to wake up certain audience members.

Twelve many many Angry Men.

These are the biggest gripes. For what is a three hour long movie… it did not feel like three hours. Perhaps benefitting from the editing (but one could have shortened the film and forgo the wild editing?)
We get to known Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer, a character in human history who is very much divisive and quite shrouded in mystery. We see a brilliant theorist marred by naivety and (unsurprisingly) a lack of foresight. Throughout the film we see a man who, seemingly unaware, destroys most things he comes in contact with. Relationships in ruins, a family barely held together, even bucking authority when he can despite the extreme nature of his work. It all paints a very stark portrayal of a man who could make such a horrific chapter in our history.

It is a very politically fuelled movie. Perhaps unsurprisingly. But the trailer is deceptive as it is not as snappy or engaging as you might expect it to be. The process is slow. By the third act, it can feel like Nolan is struggling to make an exciting escalation of stakes from an otherwise closeted affair.

True enough, the film is very good at delivering some gut-punches. Not just for Oppenheimer himself, but also for us the audience. Characters cheering on the success of the atomic bomb test ring hollow for us, even though they in that moment may have had the right. The sickening boardroom meetings that follow, deciding on the fates of tens of thousands… they are slick with dreadful indifference and Cheshire Cat smiles.

It is a difficult film to rate. One that has stirred a certain desire to read up on the real events; to not forget the chapter of history that really is horrible and fascinating all at once. Perhaps the film did its job then? To remind us about how scary we can really be.

It is just a shame it was edited so manically.

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