FILM REVIEW: OPPENHEIMER
Release Date: 21th July 2023
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon
Screenplay by: Christopher Nolan
Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema
``a flawed epic``
When is a biopic not a biopic? When it’s a Christopher Nolan biopic Nolan’s latest cinematic event is partly based on Kai Bird and Martin B. Sherman’s brick-sized biography American Prometheus. It is the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the genius who invented the atomic bomb and gifted the world with the means to destroy itself. Nolan’s sprawling epic covers the life of Oppenheimer from a depressed, homesick student in Cambridge in 1928 to his McCarthy-era vilification in 1958. Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s not.
Clocking in at a weighty three hours, Oppenheimer (or, How to Build an Atomic Bomb) is split into three distinct acts, which could be delineated as the research, the bomb, and the aftermath. The most surprising aspect is how traditional and linear it all is. Somehow, Nolan manages to make lots of scenes of men scribbling formulae on blackboards compelling. He cuts to the heart of the matter and takes bewildering, impenetrable concepts such as quantum mechanics and makes them accessible. This is easily Nolan’s most straightforward movie in a very long time. There are still plenty of flashbacks/flashforwards, but this time it’s not a puzzle. You won’t need a wallchart and coloured string to understand what’s happening and when.
It is the movie’s middle section that truly stands out. The enormous clandestine undertaking involving hundreds of scientists working away at a secret location is rich with melodrama. It’s a compelling, irresistible soap opera culminating in a ferocious, intense scene of terrible beauty when the world was forever changed. The use of sound, combined with Ludwig Göransson’s bombastic score, produces a bone-shaking, tangible experience. It is enough to melt your face off. Appropriate, given the subject matter.
In his sixth collaboration with Nolan, Cillian Murphy is finally given the lead. And boy does he make the most of the opportunity. Quite simply, Murphy is faultless. He delivers a masterclass in acting for the screen, while the rest of the heaving cast appear to be belting it out from the stage to the back row. In a movie filled with grandstanding try-hard turns, Murphy makes it look effortless. He is extraordinary. Plenty of nominations will surely and rightly follow, but Murphy’s performance is probably too subtle and nuanced for awards. It’s not right, but such is the way of things.
For all of Nolan’s many indisputable talents as a filmmaker, he is not an actor’s director. His attention is on the grand spectacle and how the individual elements all fit together like a block puzzle. What’s lost here is the finesse. Oppenheimer deals with spectacle and big biopic-style emotions rather than the small subtleties. When it comes to directing actors, Nolan’s style is more Hitchcock than Haneke. Robert Downey Jr. is painfully miscast, and the usually superb Emily Blunt struggles to carve out much of an impression in this overwhelmingly masculine club. As Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, she gets a couple of terrific moments. Otherwise, her character drinks, and that’s about it. Worst of all is Tom Conti’s borderline caricature of Albert Einstein, who keeps popping up throughout the movie like the Easter bunny.
Apart from the occasional bout of overacting, the most frustrating element is the film’s inability to get inside Oppenheimer’s head, and explore the psychological effects of opening Pandora’s Box and unleashing into the world destruction on an unimaginable scale. A lot is ignored for the sake of story. The unthinkable, unstoppable rise of the Nazis was the spark that lit the atomic fuse – Oppenheimer doubts that America can be trusted with the bomb, but knows that the Nazis can’t – but Germany had already surrendered before the first Trinity test. There are a few brief abstract scenes of Murphy struggling to hold things together, making the mental connection between ripples of raindrops in water and the unstoppable devastation that his invention has wrought, but this fundamental aspect goes largely unexplored. This is a missed opportunity.
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are glossed over, and only the political aftermath is examined. The third act is essentially a courtroom procedural without a courtroom, as Downey Jr’s Lewis Strauss throws Oppenheimer to the wolves in a closed session kangaroo court. It’s here that the clichés start to mount up.
Oppenheimer is a flawed epic. It’s got good bones. The foundations are firm and the structure is solid. It’s just that some of the décor is a bit tacky and the roof is missing. It’s an imperfect gem, and given Nolan’s previous body of work, is it all that unreasonable to expect perfection?