As summer movies go, writer-director Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is in a class of its own. American moviegoers looking for a short escape from the heat with mindless action or forgetful fun can waste their money on the latter Indiana Jones And Mission Impossible clones, people who will laugh at a public hanging Asteroid City And theater camp, and anyone who is not allergic to pink has the offensive, annoying and idiotic Barbie. But if you want a single movie experience worth remembering after the summer of 2023 is over, Oppenheimer is the gene.
OPPENHEIMER ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
The American public is not programmed to enjoy and embrace a three-hour nuclear physics film, so my grave concerns about the longevity of this epic biopic about the man who invented the atomic bomb and changed the world are genuine. At first they’ll be intrigued enough by the rave reviews to see what all the fuss is about, but after hardcore Christopher Nolan fans and what’s left of a dwindling adult audience have seen it and word of mouth kicks in, I doubt Oppenheimer has legs. I hope I’m wrong, because this is a movie with intelligence, purpose, and historical value.
Divided into sections that, in Nolan’s traditional commitment to style over substance, bounce in all directions like Mexican jumping beans, the film opens at the height of World War II after Einstein’s atom-splitting theory is confirmed and the United States competes with Germany to see who will be the first to develop the inevitable nuclear bomb. J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Irish actor Cillian Murphy in a mammoth performance that dominates nearly every scene) was the scientist recruited by the military to head the Manhattan Project, the secret arm of the government dedicated to creating the most powerful bomb known to man. A Jewish physicist with left-wing political leanings, he worked feverishly to defeat the Nazis and end the war. Since he already owned a ranch in New Mexico, a town called Los Alamos was built there to house the temporary community that would build and eventually test the bomb once it was developed. The middle section of the film gets bogged down in a boring attempt to explain quantum physics, spending an enormous amount of time on the science elements of the bomb – uranium, titanium, hydrogen, plutonium and the proportions of each. The internal relationships between members of the Manhattan Project are confusing and complex, but to ease the scientific tedium, Nolan introduces a human element as Oppenheimer’s staff nicknames him “Oppy” and with his trademark pork pie hat, he masters the art of mixing the perfect martini and debates with his mistress (Florence Pugh) the pros and cons of communism.
The movie never shows what the bomb did to end the war, but much of it focuses on the initial blast in a part of the New Mexico desert called White Sands. Oppenheimer did manage to beat the Nazis in developing the bomb, but to his eternal regret, Hitler committed suicide and Germany surrendered in May 1945, so instead the US, against its better judgement, dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, ending the war in Japan instead. The result made Oppy the most famous man in the world, but he was so guilt-ridden about the disastrous toll his bomb took on masses of civilian lives in Japan that he wanted nothing to do with President Harry Truman’s hard-hitting plan to move forward with the hydrogen bomb, an even more devastating weapon of mass destruction, alienating the government by dedicating himself to arms control.
The latter part of the film chronicles the ugly post-war ramifications of Oppy’s face, when times had changed and the toxicity of the embarrassing McCarthy era made it easy to indict a man whose brother (Dylan Arnold) and wife (a stout, unrelenting Emily Blunt) were both once Communist Party members. So a figure once considered the most important man on the planet was betrayed, persecuted, and humiliated by the same US government he had once worked so diligently for, and fell victim to a smear campaign spearheaded by his once venerable colleague, Lewis Strauss (a great Robert Downey, Jr.), who accused him of being a Russian spy. The film derails again as it slides down into a series of Senate interrogations that pit the numerous participants in Oppy’s life and career against each other.
Oppenheimer is undeniably a compelling film with great moral conviction and a conflicting conscience, but its admirable scope is not always clear. Not linear in structure in any way – and embellished with pretentious sound and camera breaks, switching from color to black and white, imploding with the sounds of bomb explosions and foot stomping – the film becomes irritating. Christopher Nolan movies are usually about imagery, not characters or plot, and the actors are there. This one, for a change, is about one of the most demanding and controversial chapters in American history and the man who made it possible. Nolan lays out the facts, but doesn’t seem to be satisfied with just the facts. His inability to tell a story straight (or maybe the key word is his refusal) spreads a maximum of different elements in a dozen directions at once. A great story becomes plausible but disjointed.
Fortunately, the story survives, and the only thing that consistently works is Cillian Murphy’s rousing lead. He starred in other films (including Nolan’s Dunkirk) but his output has never been productive. This time he’s provocative and profound, in a demanding role on his way to Oscar recognition. And he’s backed by an amazing cast, including the unrecognizable Gary Oldman as the blunt and obnoxious Harry S. Truman, Tom Conti as Albert Einstein, Matt Damon as the Lieutenant General who appoints Oppy as head of the Manhattan Project, and Remi Malek, Josh Hartnett, Matthew Modine, Kenneth Branagh, Tony Goldwyn, Casey Affleck, among others, all exemplary and perfect.
Despite the flaws, Oppenheimer is an unforgettable rarity in a currently stagnant cultural quagmire of film mediocrity. See it and learn something.
Observer Reviews are regular reviews of new and notable movies.