“Oppenheimer” Review

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“Oppenheimer” Rating: 4/5

Christopher Nolan tackles a dense historical drama that is endlessly intriguing.

It follows the career of J Robert Oppenheimer, long regarded as the father of the nuclear bomb. We see his involvement in the Manhattan Project and the moral complications he faces during and after the bomb is completed. The story examines what mankind is capable of. Where ego, morality and warfare are debated in detail.

Positives

From the moment “Oppenheimer” was announced, the collection of actors in Nolan’s arsenal was astounding. There aren’t just a few big names, but the entire cast is full of excellent talent. I can’t remember the last time there were so many heavyweights working together. Such a treat for cinema fans!

Cillian Murphy is captivating as J Robert Oppenheimer. He captures facial expressions, mannerisms and emotional turmoil as the film goes on. I’ve always admired him as an actor and am thrilled he’s finally a big-time lead. Other standouts are Robert Downey Jr, Jason Clarke, Matt Damon, Josh Harnett and more. It’s hard to pick a favorite performance!

Nolan also creates a perspective bending story, where the scenes shot in color represent Oppenheimer’s perspective and the black and white scenes are Lewis Strauss’ point of view. This is fascinating as a viewer because we get to see Oppenheimer presented in different ways, adding to the complexity of his character.

The time jumping also creates a sense of unreliable narration from both, wondering which side is providing the audience with the correct presentation of events (or if neither are). But it’s safe to say that each perspective makes the events taking place more impactful to the rest of the world.

Nolan has always been one to avoid CGI, and he follows that trend here. The film allegedly uses 100% practical effects to create the bomb sequence. In a world where CGI dominates special effects, Nolan bucks this trend and crafts a truly tense sequence where the detonation of the bomb is tested. The scene is elevated by a chilling score, building a sense of dread as the detonation time gets closer.

The score throughout the film is quite good. It generally adds to the tone of each scene, but I think it goes on too long at times.

I’m also a filmgoer that likes when stories pose questions. Where we are asked to question motives, perspectives and moral ambiguity. “Oppenheimer” explores the idea of mankind destroying themselves through political tension, scientific development and ego inflation. It also highlights the idea of governments using their brightest minds to further an agenda and disregarding them when they are no longer of use. Oppenheimer’s psychological destruction is conveyed wonderfully by Murphy, who captures his drive to be the most important man in the room, while recognizing that he gave the world the ability to destroy itself. The conflict Murphy conveys in the film is tremendous. The fact that Oppenheimer is portrayed as a complex man was a great avenue to go. The story could have easily made him out to be a hero who saved America during WWII or a villain who let his ego get the best of him. Instead, the story explores each perspective and presents Oppenheimer as a flawed man with an abundance of intelligence. The complication of his involvement in left-wing/communist ideals made for an interesting bend to his loyalties during an extremely tense time in world politics.

“Oppenheimer” is certainly a film that makes us think, and for that I commend it.

Negatives

There’s no doubt that “Oppenheimer” commands the audience’s attention with thoughtful insight, but a few areas hold it back from being one of Nolan’s best films.

I mentioned the score being a highlight, but at times, it doesn’t know when to quit. Certain dialogue driven scenes were overloaded with the string heavy score, drowning out the dialogue and intensity that should have been there. This wasn’t a problem for the entire movie, but it certainly stood out enough to warrant criticism. If the actors were allowed to carry these scenes themselves, I believe the story would have had a sharper impact.

The bomb sequence was also an area of anticipation surrounding the film’s release. While it certainly left an impression, I feel like it was a bit underwhelming. The buildup to the explosion was excellent, but the scene felt a bit small in scale, compared to the hype surrounding it. Exploring the consequences of the bomb’s existence was a much stronger area of the film. Maybe that’s the point?

I’d say there’s an overabundance of characters introduced throughout the story. This can make the film feel overstuffed and unfocused, especially when shifting perspectives between Oppenheimer and Strauss. Yes, there were many people involved in the Manhattan Project and hearings following the development, but as a filmgoing experience, it can feel overwhelming.

One main area the film explores is the complexity of having weapons so detrimental to humanity’s disposal. I loved this exploration, but I feel as though the film gets pigeonholed into making this an American conundrum. Realistically, if the United States didn’t develop the bomb, it’s likely the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany would have. That’s where the moral complexity lies, not in the nation who developed it…but the horror in wielding a weapon so powerful. Nolan could have highlighted this a bit more. Not to say he didn’t at all, but it could have made the overarching message more potent.

Finally, I don’t think the hype around the IMAX was warranted. There’s no need to spend the extra money to see this on an IMAX screen as the 3-hour-runtime is mostly dialogue driven.

Conclusion

I certainly have many thoughts on “Oppenheimer.” The film masterfully constructs a story that questions humanity’s desire to be in control. Where political leverage and tension drive scientific advancement at the expense of humanity’s safety. I loved pondering these ideas as Cillian Murphy commands the screen as Oppenheimer. I believe the film will be highlighted during awards season with plenty of nominations.

Certain aspects could have been sharper to highlight these complex ideas, but nothing takes away from the strong experience Nolan provides. History buffs will really enjoy this one, but I think most audiences will find something to appreciate here.

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