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Oppenheimer

*****
2023

‘…an uncommonly literate and effective historical drama…’

If Barbie offers the abrasive pink shock of the new, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is very much a throwback to the kind of high-quality, reflective period drama that cinema has previously been built on; it must be the most sober, serious-minded film to open with a nuclear $93 million weekend in the US. A big starry cast and Nolan’s studied style obviously help, but like Barbie, Oppenheimer takes a big name that you think you know and conjures a developed narrative that informs, educates and involves as it unpacks the backstory. It’s the kind of movie that often gets buried in awards seasons, but as a summer blockbuster, it’s an uncommonly literate and effective historical drama, adapted from the biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin.

For once, Nolan doesn’t fracture the narrative strands too much; framed by an investigation set in the 1950’s, we flash-back to see Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) recruited to the Manhattan Project after a formal scientific education establishes that he’s the best of his generation. But Oppenheimer is troubled from the get-go; we see him inject an apple with poison and leave it on the desk of his tutor, only to retrieve it before it can be eaten. In this instance, Oppenheimer is able to take back his mistake before any effect is caused, but he can’t help leave a deeper footprint in the Los Alamos desert sands as we get to understand the dog-eat-dog power struggles behind the genesis of the atomic bomb, leading to the first test at Trinity, and then the mass destruction of human life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The film’s final act reveals a specific antagonist behind Oppenheimer’s fall from grace, but that identity should remain secret until you see the movie. The conclusion addresses the opening quote ‘Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.’ And Nolan and Murphy get us into Oppenheimer’s head as we see the creator of the atomic bomb haunted by horrors that reflect his responsibility for actions he cannot take back, chained to that rock forever and a day.

If the women’s roles, adeptly played by Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt, feel a little undernourished, that’s probably because men were the primary drivers of this narrative; Murphy does an excellent, un-showy turn as the scientist, with Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr and others all rising to the challenge of making history come alive, and Tom Conti a pleasingly gnomic Albert Einstein. The pyrotechnics are also handled in a careful manner; this is a story of technical success, but moral turpitude, and while the war was won, the personal cost is high for those who made the bomb as well as for those whose lives were destroyed by its detonation. Oppenheimer the movie isn’t an act of hero worship, but a fairly matter-of-fact look at his rise and fall from grace; the huge tragedies that he helped create are kept off-screen, a directorial choice to keep scope narrow and precise.

Those who know their history will already know where Oppenheimer the movie is going, but there’s some fresh detail about how the witch-hunt of supposed communists led him to become a cropper, and there’s an aside about John F Kennedy (not seen here) that’s worth exploring. This kind of film can be caviar to the general, but slick marketing and the Barbenheimer effect have somehow brought Nolan’s film to the wide audience it deserves. There’s a lot of committee meetings, and a lot of white male angst, a lot of men in suits barking or following orders, but it’s all appropriate to telling an involved, compelling story that asks some serious questions about how weapons physically work, and how appropriate they are to be used in a world currently blighted by mass irresponsibility.

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  1. Seen this twice already and will probably go back again. I loved it and for once wasn’t annoyed by Nolan’s time twists. Packed full of superb performances, Murphy obviously, and Damon, getting older gracefully, Hartnett (who I didn’t recognise), Blunt, Pugh. Although patriarchy was dominant Blunt and Pugh both had great scenes, Blunt when she tore apart the interrogator for his lack of phrasing, you don’t get much bolder than Pugh in the buff instead of those coy post-coital scenes with blankets drawn up to the chin, and I loved how she kept dumping his flowers in the bin. I never felt it was virtue-signalling, more that it reflected not even a fractured personality but a guy who went in his own eyes from hero to villain, basking in scientific glory to a madman’s what have I done. I could have sat through another 30 minutes so bring on the Director’s Cut. And what stroke of editing genius deciding to use the stamping feet as an integral part of the soundtrack from the start. I’ve ordered the book – currently sold out everywhere because nobody saw this success coming.

    • Keen to look at the book, apparently some of this is verbatim from the pages. Great acting from make and female performers, particular Downey Jr and Murphy, and Nolan skipping some of his usual tricks in favour of handling intense material with care and elan. Keen to hear a downside, but not yet hit anyone who didn’t dig it…

    • See them both, but don’t see them as a double bill. Whiplash potential in terms of style and content.

  2. Likely 1 of few that thought film should be longer or edited so it could include vital contributions of suicide squad [Parson, Melina, Forman) and over 50 women vital to launching nuc, Hornig, Char Serber, Joan Hinton, Liz Graves, Maria Mayer, Floy Lee, and woman Oppie outed as commie, name escapes me. Excellent critique and points raised! Did u watch earlier miniseries on Oppie in 80s? It was focused on heavy surveillance and mistrust, and FBI scrutiny post war.

    • Yes! Meant to mention the miniseries, saw that on the BBC in the 80s and suspect Nolan saw it too. Nolan usually favours a more complex game than he plays here, but not much of his time was wasted; most of this lands, and I didn’t know about the apple. Will research the suicide squad, and also the female contribution; you always put me to shame with your incredible knowledge!

    • Great! I think it’s a fresh development for Nolan, after the rather gimmicky Tenet, and like you, I’m keen to see where he goes next. Not Batman 4!

  3. How thrilling is it that we have two huge buzz-worthy movies opening in the same weekend (US at least) that aren’t Superhero movies, sequels, or remakes?

    I’m aware this isn’t an original insight, but it’s great.

    Haven’t seen this one yet (opted to lead with Barbie) but I’ll be seeing this one before it leaves the big screen for sure.

    • It’s quite a different kettle of fish, but good all the same. Feels like there’s been a ketchup burst of enthusiasm for proper movies this week, and that’s all for the good.

      Incidentally, two mentions of Gilmore Girls on this blog while you were away…did you spot them?

        • Miss Patty pushing heroin to the man who created ALF! Thought you’d be all over it!

          • Lol!

            That’s worth going back to find for sure.

            I’ve been woefully out of the loop between my vacation and a huge day job project that sucked up all my time.

            But I am finished will be back with my movie obsessive ways!

                • Got a Haunted Mansion/Grand Torino double header planned for next week, I’m sure they’ll be top notch cinema! And to think only a few months ago we neatly lost our minds due to Magic Mike Derangement Syndrome.

                    • If one weekend this year was the direct opposite of Barbenheimer, it was our last dance with Magic Mike, emptying cinemas and minds in a way that felt like forever…

    • Then YOU are the target audience. Get doen to your multiplex and tell them I sent you!

  4. The meatbag intern watched this this weekend. He said it was 3hrs long, with no intermission?
    Is that true?

    Because how is anyone supposed to eat a big box of extra-salty salted popcorn, drink 2litres of extra-sugary Sugar Blast soda and then sit in their seat for THREE HOURS without a break? All the big movies used to have an intermission break for just such a thing. My mind boggles at the logistics. Watching a movie shouldn’t be like planning out the Superbowl…

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