FOUR STARS J Robert Oppenheimer is tasked with building an atomic bomb before the Nazi's do.
DRAMA US English #OPPENHEIMER
Starring Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jnr
OPPENHEIMER is in effect three films that jostle, argue and fight one another for screen time and attention before coalescing into a cinematic explosion. Appropriate really, given the subject matter, especially so given Oppenheimer would name his first nuclear-bomb test - the set piece of this movie - ‘Trinity’.
One thread concerns itself with the post-war fallout as an older, wiser, certainly more reflective Oppenheimer who is being discredited for challenging the government’s risky policy of escalating nuclear brinkmanship against the Soviet Union.
Another explores his many personal lives: Oppy the student, Oppy the academic, Oppy the visionary, the Marxist sympathiser (perhaps), the socialist (not really), the Jew, the husband, the lover, the womaniser, father, brother, friend.
And then there’s Oppenheimer the scientist, the man who brought quantum physics to America then joined the dots between Germany splitting the atom and nuclear war. It would be the end of the world, he reasoned, unless someone other than Nazis built the bomb first - that someone being him. The Manhattan Project was born along with the Cold War as he set about harnessing nuclear fission into the most destructive device known to man.
This is where Christopher Nolan’s (DUNKIRK) sprawling epic is at its best. It’s said that he’s a procedural director, naturally in tune with process and science, less so with people and emotion. If so, he’s an excellent match for his subject, a man equally bewitched by science. Many glorious scenes have Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) lost in a reverie of particles and physics, transfixed by a world tantalisingly out of reach. He’s much less enamoured by the people around him as both his mistress and his wife (Emily Blunt) would attest. While extremely comfortable with his intellectual superiority, he’s not an ego maniac, simply self-assured with a confidence that will, ironically, be his undoing.
The film oscillates between these core parts, jumping up and down a timeline that can be hard to follow, and it proves to be a disruptive force. In the Los Alamos labs OPPENHEIMER fizzes and crackles with energy, then, as it jumps forward to any of many monochromatic political hearings or backwards to bleached student days in England and Germany, the story stumbles or slumbers. Not catastrophically, but enough to make you long to get back to the technicolour business in hand. There’s a bomb to build, an enemy to defeat and no time to lose!
Fortunately Murphy is terrific in the lead role and holds it all together. His gaunt, waxen hue lends him an otherworldly look that separates him from those spinning in his orbit (and there are scores to keep separate as Nolan serves up a game of Spot The Star with Blunt, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Conti, David Krumholtz, Josh Hartnett, Florence Pugh, Matthew Modine, Matt Damon, Dane DeHaan, Rami Malek, Olivia Thirlby, Alden Ehrenreich, Jason Clarke and oh so many more). With trademark hat and a reductive presence, Murphy all but disappears inside his character and uses it to fill the room. He’s quietly overwhelming at home and at work, and the gifted actor knows how to collapse in on himself when government hacks have him cornered. With Robert Downey Jr as Oppenheimer’s ally turned enemy, much of the political cat-and-mouse is given a welcome shot of levity whenever OPPENHEIMER threatens to turn into a leaden courtroom drama.
Furthering the director’s love of dramatic, visual and thematic density is an often overwhelming musical score that seeps into nearly every corner of the film and is then layered under, over and around an equally overwhelming effects track. As a consequence Nolan’s close set, heavily nuanced script is buried so deep in the soundtrack as to be frequently inaudible, certainly hard to follow. Perhaps that’s the point, underling Oppenheimer’s general sense of conflict, but it doesn’t make it easy.
Not that OPPENHEIMER is meant to be easy to follow. It’s not BARBIE. Nolan has long straddled the border between epic, arthouse and blockbuster, often all at once and his film’s always ask a lot of the audience. Once in a while (DUNKIRK), that works spectacularly well. Here a little less so. There are moments of epic brilliance, there are moments that fall if not flat at least horizontal, and there are others that spin their wheels; the film’s biggest set piece - testing the bomb - is, disappointingly, one of them. It points to an unsettled energy about OPPENHEIMER that feels worried three hours isn’t long enough to say and do everything it wants to say and do, then goes on to repeat what’s been said and done. And then, in case you missed it, nearly everything is summarised again. It's the procedural thing again.
Despite any grievances, there’s enough ear-splitting, head-spinning scientific endeavour, political backstabbing and historical psychodrama to make this a truly explosive Nolan epic. It may not be his best work, but it's up there with them.