‘Oppenheimer’: a biophoto, a mystery, a polemic and also a sensation

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer. Universal images

Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker with an eye for technology. He is obsessed with time and constructs stories that move simultaneously at different speeds, like the hour, minute and second hands of a wristwatch. While his films often deal with heavy themes and complex protagonists, it’s usually more interesting to talk about the form of Nolan’s stories than the content. The dark knight And Start are exciting and technically innovative, but they are not as smart as they may seem at first glance. His latest feature, starring longtime collaborator Cillian Murphy as the theoretical physicist who spearheaded the Manhattan Project, uses all of his usual engineering and structural gimmicks in the service of a story that is truly as complex as it is convoluted. At the same time a biography, a mystery, a polemic and a dense character study, Oppenheimer feels like the movie that Christopher Nolan has been preparing for his entire career, and it might just be his best work.

OPPENHEIMER ★★★★ (4/4 stars)
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh
Duration: 180 minutes.

Like it The prestige, DunkirkAnd Keepsakethe story of Oppenheimer is transmitted through multiple intersecting temporalities. Nolan is kind enough to label the film’s two storylines for us: “Fission,” a recollection of the life and career of J. Robert Oppenheimer based on his testimony before a Security Council in 1954, and “Fusion,” a counterpoint from the perspective of Admiral Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) during his confirmation hearings to become Secretary of Commerce in 1959. While not always linear, the intertwining stories remain both logically and emotionally coherent, outlining a portrait of a controversial figure who is both sympathetic and scathing. The two framing devices aren’t the only courtroom dramas at stake here. The film itself is a trial and like the interrogations of Oppenheimer and Strauss, there is no real burden of proof. Nolan plays both the prosecution and the defense. The process isn’t fair, he knows it, and he wants you to know it.

In the heart, Oppenheimer is about the terrifying transformation from theory to practice. The story introduces us to Robert as a young and ambitious scientist in the very new field of quantum physics, but like Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) before him, he is a theorist, not an engineer. How his research is applied is not his concern, or so he claims, until the consequences of his work become impossible for any sane person to ignore. This theme seeps into other parts of his story, such as the juxtaposition of his communist sympathies against his practical political agnosticism, or the reverberation of his irresponsible romantic affairs. How many degrees must there be between cause and effect, between ideation and execution, to exonerate him from his guilt?

Aside from stubborn and profound, Oppenheimer is also much more fun than you might expect. Nolan keeps this massive monster moving at a steady, bracing pace. While the relentless momentum and wall-to-wall music score can have a flattening effect, giving practically every scene the same gravity, it also never lets your attention waver. Not in at any time OppenheimerThe three-hour runtime makes it feel safe to run to the bathroom. Urgent plot developments and character context are constantly unfolding, giving this epic biopic the feel of a murder mystery or a political thriller.

And for a historical biopic about one of the most horrific events in recorded history, Oppenheimer is surprisingly funny. The playful, Sorkinese banter between Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer and Matt Damon’s prickly general Leslie Groves is as charming as the timeline-spanning bromance of John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in Basic principle. Emily Blunt slays as Robert’s ironclad wife Kitty, a character whose minimal role in the film’s first two hours is just the thrill for an Oscar-worthy uppercut. Nolan has assembled a huge cast of character actors, made up of about half of Hollywood’s white dudes, but it’s a special showcase for performers with creepy eyes and bumpy faces. Oppenheimer features a murder sequence of actors you’d cast as serial killers – Dane DeHaan, David Dastmalchian, Casey Affleck, Rami Malik, Benny Safdie – and uses them all perfectly. This helps raise star Cillian Murphy, who filled the serial killer space in Nolan’s Batman beginsto the relative position of Handsome Leading Man.

Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss and Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer Oppenheimer. Melinda Sue Gordon

Murphy is haunting and nuanced as Oppenheimer, but of all the film’s sharp performances, Robert Downey Jr.’s Lewis Strauss stands out. head and shoulders above. Downey plays Strauss as Oppenheimer’s Burr of Salieri, an insecure political operator whose obsession with the “father of the atomic bomb” contains both genuine reverence and seething resentment. After a decade sealed in that Iron Man suit, Downey is finally reasserting himself as a generation-defining talent, the very reason we ever cared about Tony Stark.

You might imagine that the atomic bomb itself could play the leading role Oppenheimer, especially since the film’s press tour has emphasized the use of hands-on, optical effects in its rendering rather than CGI. Nolan and company’s depictions of both microscopic and giant core reactions are awe-inspiring indeed, and even if a critic finds the trend of filmmakers bragging about how little VFX they’ve used a snobbish affectation, the value of this creative decision falls. More striking than the images themselves, however, is the fact that they help emphasize rather than distract from the film’s humanity. In OppenheimerIn his first act, shots of sparks and particles alternate with Robert’s studies, a visual representation of his genius. The first two hours all build to the Trinity bomb test, which we witness in all its terrifying power. From this point on, however, we no longer see the destructive power of the atomic bomb, because Robert himself refuses to look at it. Instead we feeling as if his reluctance to see the reaction he began to see in the outside world caused it to begin in his body, and ours.

There’s an argument that any film about J. Robert Oppenheimer is inherently an apology for America’s bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or at least for the man who made it possible. The lack of a Japanese perspective in the story or images of the bombing or its aftermath may also become a subject of discussion in the coming weeks. However, the impossibility of a fair or objective reading is ingrained in the text of Oppenheimer. The film can be read as either Christopher Nolan defending Robert Oppenheimer, or Nolan condemning himself for it. Is attempting to understand a guilty person in itself an act of forgiveness? Where does theory end and practice begin?

Observer Reviews are regular reviews of new and notable movies.

'Oppenheimer' review: a bio photo, a mystery, a polemic and also excellent

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