Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated film about the "father of the atomic bomb" falls into many of the pitfalls of the biopic format.
..Much more moving and effective is the film’s consideration of the place of Oppenheimer’s Jewishness in his story: the bomb he built to fight the Nazis ended up being used to kill thousands of Japanese civilians, at a time when the war was, according to most, already won.
Nolan’s Oppenheimer barely qualifies as a biopic... Instead it’s a movie investigating the nature of power: how it is created, how it is kept in balance, and how it leads people into murky quandaries that refuse simplistic answers. --Alissa Wilkinson, Vox
Like a British Prometheus, Christopher Nolan uses the incandescent power of cinema to illuminate a story and figure of colossal magnitudes that incites more admiration than passion. --Nestor Bentancor, Nestor Cine Desde Hollywood
It should come as a surprise to no one that being the person credited with inventing the nuclear bomb would elicit conflicted feelings in J. Robert Oppenheimer. Yet the fact that the man would harbour at least some regret over his invention being used to kill thousands of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is framed as a momentous emotional revelation near the end of Nolan’s Oppenheimer, the highly anticipated biopic competing with Greta Gerwig’s Barbie for box office domination this week. This confusing moment is only one of several in the film — confusing because the gravitas lent to it byNolan’s bold filmmaking does not match its actual novelty or surprise.
The same odd sensation is felt in a ludicrously staged sequence (its details are too wild to be spoilt here) that centresOppenheimer’s wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) to illustrate the jealousy she feels about his former girlfriend, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) — a rather banal dynamic that does not warrant such OTT treatment.Similarly, a scene that shows Oppie (as his friends and colleagues call him) delivering a triumphant speech to colleagues and students after the dropping of the bombs in Japan feels redundant and crass; its play with subjective perspective and surreal imagery to emphasise his already obvious feelings of bewilderment comes across as student film naivete more than it does earned sincerity.
As counterintuitive as this may sound, the emotions felt by “the destroyer of worlds” over his invention simply aren’t all that interesting. Much more fascinating and better prone to dramatisation — especially in the hands of a filmmaker with more affinity for concepts and theory over human emotion — is the journey that led him there. In those sections of the film more directly concerned with the facts of Oppenheimer’s life, Nolanholds on to the very sincere, cheesy idea that no one but Oppenheimer could have done this — that this man was fated to invent the nuclear bomb. But the intrigue is thorny enough to forgive those more childish ideas, at least for a while. How did this scientist, dreamy (in both senses of the term, with Cillian Murphy in the part) and more concerned with concepts than with their practical implications, end up building a weapon?
In its first few sequences, the film rattles through the events that led the young professor to become part of the Manhattan project with a swiftness and a reliance on cliched imagery that, in its best moments, give the impression of watching a trailer for the film Oppenheimer. In its worst, it brings to mind Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, that timeless satire of biopic stereotypes that should have forever changed the model for such films. It seems that in every room the young Oppenheimer enters, he meets a world-famous scientist who tells him which university he should go to next. Those early expository sequences are dense with detailed biographical information that feel superfluous, or which in any case could have been introduced in a more time-effective and subtle manner. Nolan himself seems to recognise this, however, for he juxtaposes the linear biography with two other important moments from Oppenheimer’s life: his security-clearance hearing in 1954, where he is questioned over his past associations with communists;and the 1959 Senate confirmation hearing of Lewis Strauss (an excellent Robert Downey Jr.), a former senior member of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, where Strauss is queried about his past support of Oppenheimer.
These two parallel storylines (trust Nolan never to stick to a linear narrative) put an emphasis on the alliances and rivalries that formed during Oppenheimer’s involvement in the Manhattan project, and over his entire life. The gallery of recognisable faces (Josh Hartnett, Jason Clarke, Casey Affleck, David Dastmalchian to name just a few) in those scenes sometimes threatens to distract from the dialogue which, though perfectly audible (it famously was not so in Tenet), is so incredibly dense that it feels as though Nolan intentionally sought to express straightforward ideas in the most convoluted way possible — an attempt at getting away from Walk Hard territory, perhaps? In any case, working out the system of interlocked alliances and secret rivalries that shaped Oppenheimer’s fate is the most entertaining of Nolan’s puzzles here.
One of the major themes the director underlines in the life of his subject is Oppenheimer’s love for theories, and his naive belief that they can and should be considered separately from their potential real-life implications. History would prove deeply ironic for Oppenheimer, but beyond his story, it seems as thoughNolanwants to warn of the danger in living only in one’s head, in the abstract world of thought alone. Perhaps this is why the filmmaker, often accused of embracing precisely such a disembodied perspective in his work, is so concerned here with representing not just the ideas of his protagonist, but also his sex life and his emotions, as obvious as they might be — all the sound and the fury of being alive. As mentioned above, most of this does not work (particularly the bizarre sex scene), but Murphy’s embodied performance and striking features help keep the film’s feet more or less firmly on the ground, in the lived-in world.
Much more moving and effective is the film’s consideration of the place of Oppenheimer’s Jewishness in his story: the bomb he built to fight the Nazis ended up being used to kill thousands of Japanese civilians, at a time when the war was, according to most, already won. The scene in which state officials decide on which two cities to bomb — the first to show that they have the ability to do so, the second to demonstrate that they can do it again — is where Nolan’s blunt, naive style works best. No dreamlike, subjective sequence is necessary to make us feel Oppenheimer’s profound ambivalence here. It’s possible there was no need for any such declamatory scenes at all.
Oppenheimer was produced by Syncopy (UK), and American companies Universal Pictures, Atlas Entertainment, and Gadget Films. Distribution is handled by Universal Pictures.