FILM REVIEW: Oppenheimer
A great film sandwiched in-between Christopher Nolan's usual pretensions
'Barbenheimer' begins this weekend with Christopher Nolan’s latest release, Oppenheimer - a biographical drama about the man who created the atomic bomb to end World War 2 and the fallout following that, including the moral ramifications for the man himself and a security hearing that questions his political loyalties.
Deeply admired by most, Nolan films have always been a point of contention for this reviewer. While his films are technically well-made, they also tend to reek of self-importance, where characters don’t talk like human beings, emotions aren’t felt but analysed, and narrative structure is toyed with to the point of confusion.
Something that can be said for Nolan films, however, is that they are ambitious, often tackling intriguing concepts that put butts in seats like space travel, dream manipulation and Batman. Oppenheimer is no exception, and, given the film’s important subject matter, perhaps Nolan’s usual pretensions would be best suited here.
Nolan wastes no time in toying with the narrative structure, immediately shifting between black-and-white and colour scenes. Not because of changing time periods as one may naturally assume, but because of changing perspectives, colour representing Oppenheimer’s crystal clear view on his role in the Manhattan Project, and black-and-white representing the more tarnished view of Atomic Energy Commission member, Lewis Strauss, played by Robert Downey Jr. who is near unrecognisable in this antagonistic role. As well as this, the first 30 minutes or so deal with the origins of Oppenheimer, his school days and his relationships, which do minimally influence the rest of the film in retrospect but are not what brought audiences to the film in the first place.
As soon as they begin work on the Manhattan Project, though, Oppenheimer is immensely engaging. Cillian Murphy is superb as the man himself throughout, showing his age on his face and emoting so much through his eyes alone, from pride at his creation to impending doom. Nolan is precise in the detail of how the atomic bomb came to be, the gathering of scientists to work on this project - most of whom are played by notable names - and the chemistry behind the bomb’s making. The Trinity Test itself, in which the bomb is tested for the first time, is remarkable, filmed practically with no CGI, and the build up to it is a masterclass in palm-sweating tension. But the most interesting part of the film is the toll this exacts on its creator - the joy but also the deep regret: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
At three hours long, the film is nothing if not detailed, capturing the life and times of Oppenheimer. The good, the bad, the ugly. The before, the during, the after. In a film that was sold on its exploration of the creation of the atomic bomb, much of the story involving the man’s previous relationships and the proceedings with Strauss felt superfluous and heavy on exposition, given the amount of story it takes up, though this could improve on repeat viewings.
There is a great film in Oppenheimer that is sandwiched in-between Nolan’s usual pretensions. While some of the fat could’ve been trimmed to make this a tighter, more direct film, it is also grandiose, self-important, and deservedly so, exploring the most interesting aspects of this important man’s life with as much nail-biting tension and emotional analysis as it deserves, an example of Nolan’s style working in his favour.