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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Oppenheimer // Film Review

“J. Robert Oppenheimer, the martyr.”

Two decades ago, Christopher Nolan wrote a screenplay documenting the life of pilot and business tycoon Howard Hawks, which was shelved when director Martin Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio beat him to production with a separate project titled The Aviator. Reflecting on the process of writing that script, Nolan said the process: “gave me a lot of insight on how to distil a person’s life.”

Oppenheimer is a labyrinthian experiment, weaving the story of the so-called ‘father of the atomic bomb’ by pulling on strands of his life across time and space with near-zero regard for chronology or clarity of character, which is precisely the point. There isn’t a person in history whose life can be recorded objectively; every decision they make is open to interpretation, while every aspect of their character is in the eye of its beholder. Fortunately, cinema is a largely subjective medium, placing us typically in the heads of one-or-more characters and allowing us to see and judge them as the filmmaker might. Naturally then, when it comes to a story as immense as that of the man who claimed to regret his invention without ever condemning its use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the easy path for anyone to take would be outright spite and hypocrisy. But that would be boring.

Nolan writes and directs Oppenheimer as a cacophony of contradictions. He has spoken about his decision to fill the ensemble around star Cillian Murphy with established actors who could bring the skill needed to challenge him and to tear at his performance. Each of them has their own opinion on the whirlpool of a man into whose current they’ve been pulled, and over a three-hour montage of sequences which blend objective and subjectivity (the former is in black and white, the latter in colour - a trick from the Nolan playbook last seen in 2000’s Memento), Murphy plays the titular part with such ambiguity and micro-detail as to give each and every interpretation some basis in reality.

Oppenheimer is divided fairly neatly into three hour-long stories. First, we become acquainted with the man, his career journey and key relationships. His personal life is communicated to us exclusively through two romances; one with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) which ends in tragedy, and another with Kitty Puening (Emily Blunt) which persists through a depressing and muted marriage. Of these two Blunt is the better served, though it does feel at times as if the film is personifying Oppenheimer’s disinterest in how often it forgets or sidelines its two leading ladies. This is not necessarily a misstep - Blunt in particular does an extraordinary job of communicating her feelings of marginalisation through looks as Oppenheimer pushes her further into the background - though it does lead to one of the film’s few wobbles when it attempts to wring unearned emotion from a tragic and sudden turn from Pugh.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the best of the supporting performances comes from Robert Downey Jr as Oppenheimer’s self-proclaimed nemesis, Lewis Strauss. Oppenheimer is, by nature of being an interrogation of history, obsessed with legacy, and Strauss is accordingly the perfect choice as our point-of-view into the ‘objective’ half of the narrative. As played by Downey, this board chair believes himself essential to the great American myth, but is considerably more transparent in his sneakiness and breakable in his strength than his enigmatic foe, so as a result is pitifully uninteresting. His crusade to destroy Oppenheimer is brought on by a single, humiliating slight (which we see depicted both in subjective and objective renditions, with equal mundanity), and it is this petty smallness which dominates the film’s final hour, as Oppenheimer is dragged down from the heavens and into stuffy boardrooms by Strauss' crudely laid trap.

This all comes in response to the much-anticipated ‘Trinity Test’ of the film's middle hour, wherein Nolan recreates the first atomic blast in New Mexico entirely with practical explosive effects. He has referred to this as the film’s showstopper, and while it is a breathtaking image, the real dramatic crux comes in the sequences to follow as Oppenheimer endures hallucinations of the effects his magnum opus could have on civilians across the world. Sharp, painful cuts to fire, peeling skin and muffled screams pierce right through the celebrations for his achievement, while Murphy’s wordless, all-eyes performance effortlessly fights a war between pain and ego, never landing on one or the other. Does Oppenheimer feel shame for what he has done, or is he just spiteful to not get an invite to Washington ahead of the attack on Hiroshima?

Between its immense length and a breathless, tour-de-force effort from editor Jennifer Lame, Oppenheimer is a film that merits not just rewatches, but reconsiderations and write-ups aplenty. What Nolan and Murphy have created here is a character who can be read as an infinity of different men depending on the slightest of details. There is rarely a scene longer than two minutes, and it is rarer still for those scenes to run into one another chronologically, with each cut emphasising a new contradiction or hypocrisy by its leading scientist. Oppenheimer is a myriad of martyrdom and monstrosities, the man who tried to stop the hydrogen bomb only after pressing the button that he couldn’t say for certain wouldn’t burn up the world. And then of course there is the culmination of this exercise in epic morality, as Nolan leaves us on a final grace note so incomplete and indebted to Kuleshov that it is nigh-on impossible to resist taking a second and even third dive into the mind of this mad man, knowing full-well that each viewing will bare something entirely new.

It’ll have to wait though - I have Barbie in an hour.


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