Oppenheimer (2023) Swings For The Fences (And Partially Succeeds)

Few filmmakers can boast the sheer ability to grasp a project of as massive of a scale as Oppenheimer (2023). Christopher Nolan walks the thin line – on the verge of falling prey to a delusion of his own grandeur and crafting a masterpiece to be revered for its wild ambition – in a film where he picks apart Robert J. Oppenheimer’s story and constructs a picture that at times is massive, exhilarating, and breathtaking. But underneath the spectacle is a film that’s short of breath and that never gives its central figures enough room to become more than parts of a bigger sum.

Halfway through Oppenheimer (2023), Christopher Nolan takes us to the middle of a New Mexico desert where Oppenheimer’s fate is sealed. It’s the cinephile’s reverie – pushed to the wall by an army minion, facing an epically raging storm that looms heavily over the test bomb about to go off, and pressed against time in a race between empires, Oppenheimer sees how the career-defining project comes to fruition. It’s gargantuan, and it’s brilliant. Nolan handles that one scene flawlessly because he captures the moment’s gravitas, but also because the director understands that a dark cloud hangs above the victory. Since Nolan delivered the docking scene, I’ve secretly longed for the same hair-raising cinematic pleasure. The Trinity Project test is the new docking scene, and for that sole reason – to let its unprecedented power unleash in front of you – seeing Oppenheimer (2023) in IMAX is the only right way to watch this film.

Cillian Murphy as Robert J. Oppenheimer observing the atomic bomb test

The road to this scene, however, is a bumpy one. In comparison with the monumental beginnings such as the bank robbery in The Dark Knight (2009), the opera attack in Tenet (2020), or the magnificent shot of Cobb being washed up on the shore in Inception (2010), Nolan starts the engines without sitting cozily in the lap of luxury. Since beginnings are paramount because they set the tone, the opening few moments of Oppenheimer (2023) herald the constant friction between brilliance and chaos. Similarly to the sketch of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (2014), Oppenheimer drifts away to abstract representations of stars, matter, and changing states of things, dropping the ball between conversations, allegations, and accusations he’s part of. He’s detached from the surrounding world – a ghost in the present, a man in the future.

Having difficulty tuning into Nolan’s wavelength becomes more problematic as he capers between timelines, constructing a collage of flashbacks and memories and forcing the viewers to stay focused. Time stamps aren’t breadcrumbs like in Hansel & Gretel, though, and it’s a second-in-the-row film where Nolan goes beyond the comprehensible. Despite making one particular storyline stand out visually – a white-and-black aesthetic of Lewis Strauss’ congress hearing – these back-and-forth leaps are often baffling, also because Nolan’s glaringly inspired by Aaron Sorkin’s writing habits, alas, inspiration does not equal the ability to execute. Oppenheimer (2023) runs a sprint over a marathon length, with an abundance of names and characters appearing or being mentioned with the frequency of a Tommy gun discharge. Despite that, some key figures – such as StanisÅ‚aw Ulam, a Polish scientist and one of the key figures working on Project Manhattan – were omitted, which seems somewhat surprising.

Needless to say, that’s a shame, at least for those who won’t be seeing the film again, because only upon the second viewing Oppenheimer (2023) begins to unravel the intricacies of Nolan’s storytelling. Underneath the glam and veneer flows a biopic about one conflicted individual – how he got there, who pushed the buttons, and whether he was ever given a choice. Nolan captures the essence of Oppenheimer’s fatum – a scientist trapped in a cage constructed by his own country. He also sympathizes with Oppenheimer, despite observing the protagonist as he waded on, knowing his success meant devising a harbinger of doom that’s been handed over to the army. And while the script explores many socio-economic repercussions of the violent war, its aftermath, and how the discovery of the bomb changed the world forever, and shares glimpses of how World War II never really ended in 45′ but slipped almost imperceptibly into the Cold War, there may have been a more personal, ruminative film to be directed here. 

No matter how big of an elliptical swing the story marks, Nolan’s boomerang always returns to his central figure. Cillian Murphy, who’s finally given time to shine after years of lowkey roles screaming for more attention, understands the transformation of Oppenheimer from a self-assured scientist with zeal and ambition in heart to a complete wreck trying to flee from haunts that keep him awake at night. With hollow cheeks and eyes that speak more than words, Murphy feels like clay morphed into whatever shape fits the grand vision of Christopher Nolan. He’s capable of crafting a character that transforms in front of us.

Murphy isn’t the only planet on the galactic map of stars. As Gen. Groves, Matt Damon becomes an essential catalyst for the protagonist’s ultimate moral demise. Yet the true artistry of this role lies in Damon’s ability to avoid a paper-thin army guy pattern. A true standout is Emily Blunt, who claims each scene to herself, despite Nolan’s inability to write a female character that’s more than a plot device. As Kitty, a worn-down and complicated wife of Oppenheimer, Blunt is the only character that completes Murphy – when the director allows, they make magic together.

Not everyone’s given that chance. A tough nut to crack has been handed to Robert Downey Jr., whose go-for-broke performance as Lewis Strauss fluctuates, reaching moments of ups and yawns. I’m also particularly disgruntled by the objectification of Florence Pugh’s character. Nolan audaciously expects the audience to ‘believe’ in the existence of Pugh-Murphy chemistry without actually giving it the time to flourish on screen. And that’s not the only case – some planets orbiting Oppenheimer have a much more significant impact on the protagonist than the script suggests.

Now, many of Oppenheimer’s (2023) flaws are covered up by the audiovisual design of the film. The bar for Hoyte van Hoytema – the returning director of photography – hangs so high after the likes of Dunkirk (2017) that one cannot shake the feeling of simply meeting expectations. Where the technical crew decidedly excels, however, is the audio design. The entire sound department conjures up marvels – from the brilliant use of Murphy’s breath as a parallel to the ticking sound in Dunkirk (2017) to the meticulous work put into the sound of each room and space.

Deemed the father of the Atomic Bomb, Oppenheimer’s life captured became the symbol of technology becoming a double-edged sword – a dream gone hauntingly wrong. And the more I thought about Oppenheimer (2023), the more I demanded – like Nolan dismantling his apprehension to show the gruesome nightmare of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Perhaps that’s what the filmmaker intended – to push viewers to read American Prometheus, do the research, and see the testimony of these atrocities with their own eyes through numerous documentaries like White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (2007). See the facts, not recreations. Eventually, Oppenheimer (2023) is about the man wronged by both the times and people and who at least deserves more understanding, if not absolution. And that part Christopher Nolan delivers.

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