Josh Reviews Oppenheimer
A new Christopher Nolan movie is always exciting to me. I’ve been a huge fan ever since Memento. Some of his movies rank among my favorite films ever, such as The Prestige and The Dark Knight. I was surprised that I so disliked his most recent film, Tenet. Yet I remained eager to see what Mr. Nolan would do next. I must admit that I had some pause watching the trailers, these past few months, for his new film Oppenheimer. I was worried that the tone would be too dour and the three-hour run-time too painful. I’m glad my worries were unfounded.
Oppenheimer is a powerful film. Mr. Nolan uses his extraordinary filmmaking skills to create a vilm that is visceral and gripping, despite it being a film that mostly consists of people in rooms talking to one another. Mr. Nolan’s mastery of cinematic imagery and his playful approach to chronology and editing creates a film that feels at times more like a stream-of-consciousness collection of memories than the usual type of biopic. I love this. Mr. Nolan has constructed his film to put the audience in Robert Oppenheimer’s shoes, so that we can attempt to experience what he experienced and therefore wrestle with the choices he made; choices that arguably reshaped the world in an unprecedented manner. It’s an impressive achievement.
It’s also, at three hours, way too long. I think if the film were 45 minutes shorter I might be saying it was a masterpiece. Personally, I wish that last 45-ish minutes of the film — pretty much everything that comes after the successful test of the atomic bomb and the subsequent bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — had been cut from the film. Now, don’t get me wrong — that final 45-ish minutes depicts a fascinating point in Mr. Oppenheimer’s life that I knew nothing about. The writing is sharp and the acting is tremendous, particularly from Robert Downey Jr. But to me that whole sequence, in which Oppenheimer’s enemies drag up his past associations with Communism in an attempt to discredit him, is a digression from the film’s main issues of wrestling with the morality of Mr. Oppenheimer’s actions as “the father of the atomic bomb”. We do see in this sequence Mr. Oppenheimer’s attempts to flagellate himself by not fighting back strongly against his enemies; the film suggests that Mr. Oppenheimer does so out of guilt for the destruction his bombs rained down upon Japan. That’s interesting, but I think that could have been conveyed in 5-10 minutes. In a film that is three-plus hours long, I didn’t find this extended third act to be necessary. It actually diluted the film’s impact for me, somewhat.
But I still found Oppenheimer to be powerfully affecting! Christopher Nolan has often played with timelines and chronology in his films. He does so here too, not in a showy trick-ending sort of way, but by using a masterful touch to mix together moments from throughout Mr. Oppenheimer’s life. Right from the start, the film has the feel of a montage of memories. This could have been confusing in lesser hands, but Mr. Nolan’s mastery of structure allows this two feel freeing and compelling without ever throwing me as an audience member out of the story or making me too confused about what was going on. I was fascinated by this approach, which Mr. Nolan continued to utilize throughout the film. (I’d love to know how much of this was scripted and how much was found through the editing process.) Things get a little more straightforward, time-line-wise, as we move into the film’s second half. But Mr. Nolan never stopped playing around with the juxtaposition of imagery or sounds even as we got deep into the story; Mr. Nolan used those techniques to help put the audience inside Mr. Oppenheimer’s mind. (I’m thinking specifically of the jarring sequence, immediately after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, in which we see Mr. Oppenheimer attempt to give a celebratory speech, but instead become almost overwhelmed by his tumult of feelings. The film puts us right inside Mr. Oppenheimer’s head in that moment.)
I think the film does a strong job of presenting Mr. Oppenheimer as a three-dimensional human being and allowing the audience to see all sides of him and his actions. The film makes a point of mentioning several times that Mr. Oppenheimer and many of his scientist friends and colleagues were Jewish; this reminds us of the real-life struggle that was happening at the time, in which Hitler and the Germans had set out to exterminate all Jews worldwide. The cause of finding a way to defeat the Nazis at any cost was righteous. And yet we all know the Pandora’s box that Mr. Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project unleashed upon the world: the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the gift to humanity of the power to completely annihilate ourselves. The film presents both sides of the issue, and of Mr. Oppenheimer himself, and allows the audience to make its own judgement.
As usual, Mr. Nolan has assembled a tremendous cast. Cillian Murphy is very strong in the title role. He’s able to depict Mr. Oppenheimer’s intelligence and charm and also his stubbornness and awkwardness. As noted above, the film allows us to see Mr. Oppenheimer’s heroism and also his failings. This isn’t a deification of the man, nor is the film designed to tar and feather him. Mr. Murphy walks this line with grace. Matt Damon is magnificent as General Leslie Groves, Mr. Oppenheimer’s main military partner/supervisor in the Manhattan Project. Mr. Damon brings great depth of feeling to the role, and also a fine sense of humor. It’s a terrific performance; Mr. Damon’s Groves is easily my favorite character in the film, and the scenes between Mr. Damon and Mr. Murphy are among the best in the film.
Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh are both terrific as the two main women in Oppenheimer’s life; his wife Kitty and Communist Party USA member Jean Tatlock. Both women are marvelous; while at the same time I wish both women had more screen time. (I’d have gladly sacrificed some of the film’s last 45-minutes in exchange for more time with Kitty and Jean.) The film keeps us somewhat at a distance from both women, but both Ms. Blunt and Ms. Pugh command the screen whenever they appear. (My eyebrows raised somewhat at the extensive nudity in Ms. Pugh’s scenes. It’s nice to get a little fire in a Christopher Nolan movie, but the nudity seemed somewhat gratuitous to me in what is otherwise a very serious drama.)
Robert Downey Jr. is tremendous as Lewis Strauss, an influential member of the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission). Even while I felt the film’s final act, which focuses on Lewis Strauss, was extraneous, I nevertheless loved every moment of Mr. Downey Jr.’s performance. He’s a terrific prick. Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!, Solo), who plays an unnamed aide helping shepherd Mr. Strauss through his Senate confirmation hearings, really crackles in his scenes with Mr. Downey.
I loved Josh Hartnett’s performance as Ernest Lawrence, one of Mr. Oppenheimer’s friends and colleagues. Mr. Hartnett brings tremendous grace and gentleness to the performance, and also a fun spark of life and energy that brings all of his scenes with Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer to life. I want to see more of this older, more seasoned Josh Hartnett! Benny Safdie (co-director of Uncut Gems; Mr. Safdie is also an actor who has appeared in films including Licorice Pizza) is compelling in his scenes Edward Teller, one of the key minds behind the H-Bomb. And Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody, No Time to Die) is only in the movie for a few minutes as nuclear physicist David L. Hill, but he’s terrific in a key moment late in the film.
Speaking of actors who are terrific in only a few scenes: Casey Affleck uses his steely-eyed intensity to great purpose as Boris Pash, the Communist-chasing military officer; Kenneth Branagh is great as Niels Bohr, the Danish scientist who was a pioneer in quantum theory and who helped inspire Oppenheimer; Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) is compelling as Roger Robb, the leading voice on the AEC committee that sought to strip Oppenheimer of his security clearance in the fifties; David Krumholtz (Serenity; The Deuce) is wonderful as Isidor Isaac Rabi, Oppenheimer’s friend and source of moral guidance; an almost unrecognizable Gary Oldman plays Harry S. Truman in one spectacular scene; James D’Arcy (Jarvis on Agent Carter) is fun to see as Patrick Blackett, the stern instructor who Oppenheimer almost poisons; Tom Conti is terrific in just a few short moments as Albert Einstein; Dane DeHaan (Chronicle, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) adds another oily jerk to his repertoire as the officer who gives Oppenheimer a hard time over his security clearance; Matthew Modine (Stranger Things) pops up at a contentious meeting between Oppenheimer and Strauss; Tony Goldwyn (Neil Armstrong on From the Earth to the Moon) plays the head of the AEC committee assembled to bring down Oppenheimer; Jack Quaid (Star Trek: Lower Decks) plays physicist Richard Feynman; Olivia Thirlby (Juno, The Wackness) plays Lilli Hornig, a scientist on The Manhattan project. What a cast!!
As if often the case in Christopher Nolan movies these days, I didn’t love the way the dialogue was mixed on the soundtrack. I often found the dialogue hard to hear. This seems to be because of Mr. Nolan’s use of the audio recorded on the day of filming, as opposed to using ADR as most filmmakers do. I don’t love this choice; it’s been a minor bother to me in most of the films Mr. Nolan has made for the past decade. I think the audience should be able to hear all the dialogue in a film without a struggle! (Click here to read more about this issue.)
I’m delighted to have seen Oppenheimer. This is a film I am eager to revisit (as is almost always the case with Christopher Nolan’s films!). I recommend it.
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