Movie review: Oppenheimer fails to trigger emotional chain reaction

Movie review: Oppenheimer

Director and writer Christopher Nolan puts Cillian Murphy in the middle of a chaotic narrative in the hopes of harnessing the creative power of Robert J. Oppenheimer. The movie is packed with style and period inflections, but ends up an emotional dud.

Oppenheimer

3/5

Starring: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Casey Affleck, Josh Hartnett

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Written by: Christopher Nolan, Kai Bird, Martin Sherwin

Running time: 3 hrs

Rating: Restricted

Production Company: Universal

In theatres July 21, 2023

Now Streaming and on VOD

By Katherine Monk

Seeking to harness the power of Robert Oppenheimer’s creative force for his own purpose, Christopher Nolan ends up making a bomb of his own.

Not that Oppenheimer is a disaster of a film. This highly anticipated biopic about the man behind the Manhattan Project is as polished and professional as anything we’ve ever seen from the director of Memento and The Dark Knight.

Based on the best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning Prometheus Unbound by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Oppenheimer has palpable narrative ambition and endless cinematic style. Casting the ice-blue-eyed Cillian Murphy as the physicist who successfully split the atom, Nolan gives us a central character who is both magnetic — and slightly off-putting — at the same time. It’s a fitting dynamic, and one that Nolan pulls through the rest of his film as consistently sets his story between opposite poles.

On the plus side of this epic tale is the original intention: to use the power of nuclear physics to win the war and save the world from fascism. Using this lens, Oppenheimer is a hero story about a courageous thinker who went against the grain and followed his gut with explosive results.

Such is the stuff of Hollywood genre, and for a movie set in the pre-war years, it’s the best place to start because it immediately endows the viewer with a sense of optimism. Giving us a chain of black and white sequences featuring Murphy as Oppenheimer, and Robert J. Downey as Lewis Strauss, the Princeton academic who recruited him as faculty, Nolan starts off conjuring memories of It’s a Wonderful Life.

We’re treated to beautifully rendered period frames and an avuncular depiction of Albert Einstein, suggesting the film will end up affirming a familiar brand of morality, where good fights evil and wins.

We’ve come to believe in this American fiction, and by using black and white in the first half of the film, Nolan reminds us how simple the world seemed when it was Allies vs. Nazis. There was no grey area, which in turn gave Oppenheimer and his Manhattan Project team ethical permission to create a weapon of mass destruction.

We’re treated to beautifully rendered period frames and an avuncular depiction of Albert Einstein, suggesting the film will end up affirming a familiar brand of morality, where good fights evil and wins.

Sure, there are a few nagging questions that follow the scientists to Los Alamos as they huddle beneath a shroud of secrecy to perfect their doomsday machine. They wonder about the future of civilization and their role in potentially ending the world as we know it, but certain in their belief — and almost brainwashed by their own arrogance — they push ahead, and rip open the envelope of discovery.

“We have to make the politicians understand,” explains Neils Bohr to Oppenheimer. “This isn’t a new weapon. It’s a new world….”

Watching the fiery dawn of the atomic age offers plenty of spectacle, yet where Nolan had a chance to exercise his well-defined visual muscle, the movie feels surprisingly limp. Scenes of Los Alamos and Princeton feel largely generic, and slightly claustrophobic. Making things even more problematic are the dramatic exchanges between characters. Too often, historic details are sewn into self-conscious scraps of dialogue, making the characters feel less like people, and more like talking footnotes.

To be sure, no one in this film ever tells Oppenheimer the atomic bomb is an insignificant invention. The gravity of the discovery is steeped into every scene and every slow motion shot of mushroom clouds punching the stratosphere. By the same token, the bomb never fully develops into a character of its own.

Nolan’s direction feels conflicted. On one hand, he’s trying to create an allegory about the creative potential of chaos. On the other, he’s trying to communicate the moral dilemma underlying Oppenheimer’s legacy.

Sadly, neither node of the narrative feels fully charged, leaving the performers to create random moments of connection that aren’t entirely on the page. Whether it’s the kinetic dance of masculine ego that brings tension to every scene between Oppenheimer and Strauss, or the face off between American pragmatism and European pondering that defines the time at Los Alamos under U.S. Military supervision, it’s the actors who catalyze the action and make us care.

Nolan’s direction feels conflicted. On one hand, he’s trying to create an allegory about the creative potential of chaos. On the other, he’s trying to communicate the moral dilemma underlying Oppenheimer’s legacy.

Otherwise, Oppenheimer feels a little too disconnected to leave the psychic crater one might have expected from such heavy content, and such a gifted director. Nolan’s focus feels split as he navigates the not-so-perfect life of Robert J. Oppenheimer, seeking the inflection point that would make him definitive hero — or tragic villain.

In a way, Nolan bombards the character with charged vignettes hoping to trigger a transformative reaction — much in the same way physicists split the atom. It’s an ambitious and thematically appropriate treatment, but it doesn’t work because it fails to measure the moral distance travelled within the central character’s soul.

By the final frames, delivered in saturated colour to articulate the moral blur of the atomic age, it’s still not clear whether Oppy is a hero, villain or ordinary victim of human ego. Nolan collects all the right pieces, and assembles them with meticulous skill, but for all the style and slickness that Oppenheimer embodies as a piece of cinema, it’s an emotional dud.

@katherinemonk

Main image: Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer walking through a detailed recreation of Los Alamos. Courtesy of Universal Studios.
THE EX-PRESS, July 21, 2023

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Review: Oppenheimer

User Rating

2.5 (13 Votes)

Summary

3Score

Based on the best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning Prometheus Unbound by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Oppenheimer has palpable narrative ambition and endless cinematic style. In a way, Nolan bombards the character with charged vignettes hoping to trigger a transformative reaction -- much in the same way physicists split the atom. It's an ambitious and thematically appropriate treatment, but it doesn't work because it fails to measure the moral distance travelled within the central character's soul. For what it's worth, Robert Downey Jr. is worth the price of admission for his portrayal of the emotionally complex Lewis Strauss. -- Katherine Monk

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