Friday, July 21, 2023

Oppenheimer: Movie Review

Complexity of a tortured genius.
Oppenheimer tells a complicated portrait of a complicated by man by weaving in the science, the politics, and his fame. The first act is primarily Robert Oppenheimer as the physicist – an impulsive and smart young man, who studied in Europe and learned the languages and cultures around him. It also starts introducing the political trials that will surround him in later years.   2023

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Screenplay by: Christopher Nolan, Kai Bird, Martin Sherwin

Starring: Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr.

The second act is Robert Oppenheimer as the director of the Manhattan Project – a revered theorist who has the command of every notable scientist in the country and has to manage their competing ideologies. It’s a movie that builds and builds and builds and builds to the explosive ending of the second act (pun obviously on purpose). At three hours, it’s impossible not to feel the length and starting as slowly as it does is certainly a choice, but moving the anticipated climax earlier than expected helps with the complexity of the subject. A movie about Oppenheimer sells because he’s a famous scientist, dedicating a full third of the movie to that fame and not just how we got there really helps shed that biopic label.

One aspect that Christopher Nolan has picked up on that is so often over-looked of the scientists who have reached the upper echelon of academia is the competitiveness. The race to build the atomic bomb wasn’t just to beat the Nazis because they’re the Nazis, the race was to beat the Nazis so he could prove that he’s the best in the world. That’s why when Hitler died and the Nazis were defeated, they never paused their construction of the bomb. It was literally about being the best, not about defeating fascism. And I hope viewers pick up on that level of competitiveness that existed in Oppenheimer.

The climactic moment is the Trinity test. And it delivers. An epic moment of cinema that deserves the surround sound. The electric score during and surrounding that scene could go down in history to stand alongside Psycho or Jaws as a defining moment. The fact that there’s still a full third of the movie to go after that moment and it doesn’t really let down is testament to the emphasis that the film has placed on the tortured genius aspect in the aftermath of the bomb and how well that is handled.

I was most familiar with everything that happened before the dropping of the bomb. But the intricacies of American politics that come next is enlightening. His meeting with Truman, and when Oppenheimer was no longer able to shed the target on his back, leaned into the celebrity of it all and engaged in a political showdown with Secretary Strauss. While others appreciated Robert Downey Jr’s quiet menacing act, I appreciated the calm reverence that Tom Conti brought to Albert Einstein in a limited role.

Cillian Murphy is in command for the entire film from the young hot-headed Oppenheimer to the disgraced temperamental Oppenheimer. He’s way too invested in his own supremacy to recognize the patriarchy that Barbie is fighting next door. But somebody who probably should go see that movie is Christopher Nolan. One problem with stripping away the conventions of a biopic is that the “wife” role is almost eliminated, reducing them down to so few scenes that Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer isn’t human until the final act and the other women in the movie (*cough* Florence Pugh *cough*) are just naked bodies figuratively and literally. There’s a lot of fan service in this movie – introductions of scientists who didn’t even factor into the movie, name-dropping John F. Kennedy, and casting two famous actresses after fans got pissed at the countless white men. Next time, just drop that pandering. If you don’t think women are people, then just leave that for the filmmakers who do.

One of the Best of 2023