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Oppenheimer Review [2]

July 26, 2023 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
OPPENHEIMER Image Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures
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Oppenheimer Review [2]  

Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Written By: Christopher Nolan; Based on the book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird, and Martin Sherwin
Runtime: 180 minutes
MPA Rating: Rated R for some sexuality, nudity and language

Cillian Murphy – J. Robert Oppenheimer
Emily Blunt – Kitty Oppenheimer
Matt Damon – Leslie Groves Jr.
Robert Downey Jr. – Lewis Strauss
Josh Hartnett – Ernest Lawrence
David Krumholtz – Isidor Rabi
Florence Pugh – Jean Tatlock
Benny Safdie – Edward Teller
Kenneth Branagh – Neils Bohr
Jason Clarke – Roger Robb
Tony Goldwyn – Gordon Gray
Dane DeHaan – Kenneth Nichols
Casey Affleck – Boris Pash
Gary Oldman – Harry S. Truman
Matthias Schweighöfer – Werner Heisenberg
Jack Quaid – Richard Feynman
David Dastmalchian – William L. Borden
Olivia Thirlby – Lilli Hornig
Tom Conti – Albert Einstein

Christopher Nolan’s latest opus explores the life and times of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Murphy), who in his zeal to overcome the Nazis in a nuclear arms race, helped the United States government unlock nuclear power to create the world’s first nuclear weapons. Oppenheimer is Nolan’s look into the mind of the titular scientist, who brought both dream and nightmare into reality.

For all his flaws as a filmmaker, Nolan still creates undeniable, unforgettable cinematic experiences. Oppenheimer is a riveting, harrowing journey of a scientist who eventually comes to understand the gravity and insurmountable horror he has unleashed. It’s a thoughtful journey of a man who struggles to come to grips with his how he has changed the world. Cillian Murphy is impeccably cast, offering an incredibly well-rounded and versatile performance. Murphy’s Oppenheimer is not a man of malice. His initial efforts in spearheading the Los Alamos project derived from his empathy for his tribe. Oppenheimer’s family practiced Reform Judaism, he’s depicted as a man driven to help his religious brethren during the rise of the Nazi party and Adolph Hitler in the late 30s and early 40s.

Despite potential fervor over Oppenheimer’s past association as a Fellow Traveler of the United States Community Party, Leslie Groves Jr. (Damon) appoints Oppenheimer as director of Los Alamos. With Dr. Werner Heisenberg (Schweighöfer) developing nuclear weapons for Hitler, Oppenheimer believes that the Nazis have a head start, so the U.S. is in a race against the clock to develop a working nuclear bomb at the height of World War II. However, despite Oppenheimer’s efforts to do exactly what his country asks of him, the same government is later relentless in its pursuit to undermine Oppenheimer and tear him down.

In later years, also depicted throughout the film, Oppenheimer is subjected to a witch hunt for his past views and associations with known Communist party members, including his wife, Kitty (Blunt), who left the party early on during their relationship. The kangaroo court is juxtaposed by the confirmation hearings for Lewis Strauss (Downey), the former Chair of the Atomic Energy Commission. Strauss initially seeks to employ Oppenheimer as the director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, but subsequently, the two become the staunchest of political and professional rivals. The first half of the film largely depicts Oppenheimer’s journey to design and create the world’s first atomic bomb, while the second half mainly revolves around the United States government’s mean-spirited teardown of his work and reputation.

The strength of Oppenheimer is its incredibly fast, adroit pacing. At three hours in length, the film moves incredibly quickly. Nolan and editor Jennifer Lame utilize an ambitious style where the movie unfolds comparable to a 180-minute montage. This heightens the impact, buildup, and suspense for the Trinity Test. Even when the narrative appears to peak with the Trinity Test, the snappy pacing manages to keep the latter half engaging and compelling. especially when these scenes take place post-World War II. The Trinity Test is an important event in the film, but it is not the heart and soul of Oppenheimer. The only drawback of the ultra-fast editing style is that sometimes, sequences move too quickly, and it would be nice to have more scenes breathe and offer a bit more time for emotional reflection. That said, the film is not lacking in emotional resonance despite moving at a fast clip.

Nolan does not rest on his laurels where Oppenheimer is concerned. He frequently externalizes Oppenheimer’s conscious and unconscious mind, showing the thought process of a theoretical physicist come to life onscreen. Those moments infuse a type of crackling energy into the experience, which makes watching the film feel unique and fresh. There is one scene that Nolan expertly builds to throughout Oppenheimer. The scene offers a glimpse of Oppenheimer’s dread, yet it is executed with an understated visual subtlety.

Truthfully, while the IMAX format appears satisfactory, and Oppenheimer was partially shot with IMAX cameras, the IMAX presentation is not crucial for the viewing experience. Oppenheimer does not make the best use of the IMAX format compared to Nolan’s previous efforts.

Oppenheimer boasts a gargantuan cast that is quite robust and features many notable, recognizable talents who are onscreen for mere moments or only a handful of lines. It’s no surprise that likely all of Hollywood wanted a chance to be on set for this film. Besides Murphy, Robert Downey Jr. is the film’s biggest acting standout as the vindictive, yet cunning, Strauss. The way Nolan and Downey play Strauss’ vengeful nature is fascinating, basing it on perceived slights and veiled insults. What causes the falling out between Strauss and Oppenheimer is human pettiness, which plays as both highly relevant and realistic. Strauss’ perceived slights by Oppenheimer fester into a vindictive rot and grow wildly out of control and continue following Oppenheimer for years, and those spiteful thoughts poisoned Strauss’ psyche as well.

David Krumholtz also delivers a standout performance as Oppenheimer’s fellow scientist and longtime friend, Isidor Rabi. Krumholtz disappears into the role of the compassionate, Nobel Prize-winning scientist. He remains a dutiful friend and ally of Oppenheimer, even when acting as a point of dissent for the Manhattan Project. Krumholtz has been an underrated talent for many years, and his performance as Isidor Rabi should likely signal the start of a longstanding character actor phase of his career.

Sadly, Emily Blunt’s Kitty Oppenheimer is one of the film’s more significant female characters who comes off as undercooked throughout the film. Blunt does the best with what she’s given, but her depiction as Kitty is underserved. Oppenheimer and Kitty are both presented as flawed individuals, but Kitty never comes into her own as a well-rounded character despite her presence and importance throughout the story.

Unintentional or not, the film was not without dialogue issues. The film’s dialogue track comes off as either too overpowered or understated. As a result, swaths of the film’s dialogue become very difficult to understand. Arguably, the dialogue issue causes a state of active viewing and listening, but it’s also frustrating to experience a film such as this while wanting to view it with subtitles.

Oppenheimer may not be Christopher Nolan’s greatest film of all time, but it proves his pragmatic vision is more relevant than ever. Nolan is one of the few filmmakers left who can make whatever movie he wants and write his own checks, and he is one of classic cinema’s biggest allies. With so much uncertainty surrounding the movie industry, Nolan still presents a cinematic vision that is worth a trip to the movies. Oppenheimer fulfills that vision.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Despite its flaws, Christopher Nolan brings his compelling cinematic vision to life in Oppenheimer. Nolan presents an engaging, riveting, and harrowing cinematic experience through J. Robert Oppenheimer's journey of developing the first nuclear bomb, to the insurmountable guilt and realization of what he has unleashed in its aftermath, to his public shaming and disgrace by the government that charged him with the task. Cillian Murphy delivers a powerfully acted, believable, and compassionate performance as the real-life scientist who must grapple with the reality of what he has brought to the world. Some performances are underwhelming, and the subpar dialogue and audio mixing become frustrating. Nolan handles the thematic material with a thoughtful, meaningful hand.