Oppenheimer (2023)
Oppenheimer (2023)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 3 hrs.

Release Date: July 21st, 2023 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Christopher Nolan Actors: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Matt Damon, Jason Clarke, Kenneth Branagh, Josh Hartnett, David Dastmalchian, Benny Safdie, Casey Affleck

 


 

W

hen J. Robert Oppenheimer’s (Cillian Murphy) security clearance renewal is denied, he’s allowed to appear before a panel to appeal the decision. Doing so finds him reflecting on his monumental life’s work, from his early days as a professor of theoretical physics at UC Berkeley, to his recruitment into the Manhattan Project where he led a team in developing the first nuclear weapons. The numerous scientists he worked with and learned from, including Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), and Isidor Rabi (David Krumholtz), had a major impact on his career, while the upshot of WWII shaped his political agenda, his opposition to hydrogen bombs, and his run-ins with government officials accusing him of harboring communist sentiments. As Oppenheimer wages a losing battle against his judges, he contemplates the effects his professional accomplishments have had on his personal life, including with his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), as well as the cataclysmic changes his creation has inflicted upon the entire world.

Opting for a now-standard, aggravatingly disjointed timeline, the plot bounds back and forth between numerous locations and years (some in black-and-white), touching upon varying ages, historical figures, political arenas, and scientific milestones – all within the first few minutes. Plus, countless insert shots keep the editing overwrought, as molecules, fire, stars, and unidentifiable atomic reactions dance across the frame. It’s needlessly artistic, though it’s evident that writer/director Christopher Nolan, who previously helmed such ambitious sci-fi extravaganzas as “Interstellar” and “Tenet,” desperately wants to avoid a commonplace presentation for this production. Some unnecessary yet conspicuous nudity and an ever-present score also help to fuel this goal. “I support a range of causes.”

That soundtrack by Ludwig Goransson tends to manipulate, reverberating heavily with ominous tones, or amplifying nerve-jangling violins to augment routine events; everything is a little more intense when musical cues push viewers to anticipate or fret. But “Oppenheimer” is far removed from Nolan’s usual projects; here, there aren’t grand action sequences or even extensive special effects to fall back on. Despite all the technical refinements, this is a rather straightforward biography, introducing new characters and sets continuously as Robert proceeds toward (or through or after) breakthroughs and accomplishments, finding himself ensnared in tumultuous relationships, governmental complications, and political turmoil.

A considerable amount of the film focuses on strained romances, familial contentions, and workplace disagreements. The normalcy may be heightened from McCarthy-era paranoia and persecution, but none of it is as interesting as the race to build the bomb, which is practically an afterthought when it comes to the quantity of supporting material that surrounds Oppenheimer’s most notable contribution. Will audiences be stimulated by WWII politics when traditional wartime fervor is absent? Will they care about Cold War spy games when it’s only represented in dialogue? Or the awesome, destructive powers of atomic bombs when they’re shown only as aftermaths (and even then, solely reactionary, as actual archival footage/photography is withheld from the screen)? “They split the atom!”

Some of the discussions between geniuses and grunts and suits are mildly humorous, while the performances all around are first-rate. But the melodrama at the start – followed by a “Reds” level of political commentary and intrigue, historical components of the Manhattan Project, secretive affairs, suspicions of moles, military scrutiny, a problematic home life, the rush to test the bomb, a bureaucratically-orchestrated character assassination and kangaroo court showdown (legal thriller staples), and legacy shortcomings – pad the premise to a gargantuan degree. There are virtually three different, complete movies lurking within this ludicrously overlong piece, each exhibiting distinct genres and subjects, and each appearing inconsequential to the chapters that preceded them (out of order, of course).

The best section of this colossal biography is the tense build to the Trinity test, which escalates theatrically to what is essentially the most prominent climax. Science, though never delved into in much detail, is quite exhilarating. But its placement too far away from the actual conclusion is a curious misstep; the denouement is one of the most interminable, dragging, and unexciting of all third acts. It doesn’t help that the cast, though capable, is devoid of heroes, as everyone is self-serving, corrupt, backstabbing, or plainly reprehensible. Oppenheimer, the man, is altogether less engaging than his invention, its impact on the world, and the fatal consequences of its use. The film can’t really be described as a cautionary tale (perhaps one in retrospect), but it isn’t without historical, biographical, and educational value, as Nolan explores a comprehensive backstory. Problematically, it just isn’t that entertaining.

– The Massie Twins

  • 5/10