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Movie Review: ‘Oppenheimer’ is everything you’d expect from a Christopher Nolan film

Nolan is always an interesting director who is able to push boundaries and whose visual style is just perfect for large scale storytelling.

As expected from any Christopher Nolan movie, Oppenheimer is visually stunning and presents the story of the invention of the atomic bomb in an epic manner that captures the gravity of that discovery and manages to ponder on the consequences of such. Since his exploration on the concept of cinematic time in his film ‘Interstellar,’ (and even as far back as ‘Memento’) Nolan has been exploiting the way movies can bend and distort time to present the story of theoretical physicist  J. Robert Oppenheimer through the narrative framework of two important events of his life – forming the team of scientists and building the site that gave birth to the invention of the atom bomb and the subsequent attack upon him by the American government for his dealings with socialists and the far left – which unfolds in a non-linear manner to dazzling effect.

The narrative of ‘Oppenheimer’ unfolds from different time frames. They include his early life as a student of theoretical physics and moving to Germany to learn about the new theories of physics to his rise in the ranks of the American academe to his appointment as the head of the Manhattan Project where he lead the team that invented the atomic bomb all the way to the later parts of his life when he was questioned for his dealings with the far left. The past is presented in full color while the later periods are told in black and white and through the perspective of Lewis Strauss, who is nominated for a cabinet post in the White House and is being questioned for his engagement with Oppenheimer.

What the non-linear storytelling does is that it connects all facets of Oppenheimer’s life with each other in a visual tapestry that suggests causality: his engagement with socialism, communism, and left-wing ideology and how this entangled him into the world of politics as his brilliance in his field brings him to the attention of the powers that be. The nuclear race had begun, and World War II was at full-swing and he had the know-how to possibly end it with a weapon that was to end all wars. But as the film continues to jump back and forth in time, what the film does is shows humanity’s greed and hunger for power, in all shapes and sizes, whether it be individual or in the form of an institution or government.

‘Oppenheimer’ is focused on the bigger themes of morality – putting the narrative spotlight on the scientist’s thought and feelings about creating a bomb so powerful that it could risk destroying the world and glosses over the other aspects of his human frailty such as his infidelity (which has more implications on his politics) or his arrogance and self-importance (though the film underlines that he was deserving of this stance). 

The back and forth of its narrative style brings a sort of energy into the piece, along with the relentless musical score of Ludwig Goransson, that makes the film feel epic, important, and urgent. It is constantly building momentum towards both the eventual test of the atomic bomb in New Mexico and the buildup of the closed-door inquiry of Oppenheimer’s leftist dealings as well as Strauss’ own inquiry for his cabinet post. All three events are interlinked that sets to amplify what the film seems to be pointing at: that man cannot be trusted with any power whatsoever. Even with Oppenheimer’s own reluctance and eventual submission to the call for harnessing the power of the atom, the government that requested for it took it from him the moment it was done and used it for their own ends.

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As much as the film underscores that Oppenheimer wanted this to be the end of all wars, what the film also manages to highlight is how this was also the beginning of a sort of end for human civilization. It is a triumph in Nolan’s direction that he was able to use Oppenheimer’s story as a fulcrum of when things may have started to go bad for the world. 

Nolan is always an interesting director who is able to push boundaries and whose visual style is just perfect for large scale storytelling. He can make a room full of scientists talking about theoretical physics the most interesting thing to watch on the big screen because he understands how to contextualise it through cinema – the scenes preceding it and the context as to why they are having this discussion. Nolan is a storyteller that can present such things in a captivating way.

And it helps that he’s got fantastic actors to help bring out the best of his work. Cillian Murphy is captivating as Oppenheimer, and he manages to do so in the large span of time that Nolan has chosen to tell his story. Murphy has to play him from as young as an eager student in Germany to him at his prime while working on the Manhattan Project and then later on in life as an accomplished man and watching the world pass him by. Emily Blunt also gives a powerful performance with what little she’s given to do (though she does have one moment where she steals the show from everybody). But if anyone manages to really steal everyone’s thunder, it is Robert Downey Jr as Lewis Strauss. 

As Strauss, Downey is a fireball igniting every scene he is in. There is a huge range of emotions that is required of him, and he delivers each on a silver platter. It’s a more flashy role than Murphy’s so while Cillian Murphy serves to anchor the film to its main character, it’s the rest of the cast like Blunt, Matt Damon, and Downey Jr who pushes the sails and really helps this movie take flight.

While all of Nolan’s creative team from Cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema to editor Jennifer Lame and production designer Ruth De Jong and Goransson’s impeccable score are working at peak levels, ‘Oppenheimer’ proves to be exactly what I was expecting from a Christopher Nolan movie about the famous physicist. Except for two nude scenes that felt out of place, and a little too much figurative use of Oppenheimer’s hallucinations on the effects of the nuclear destruction, the film does exactly what it sets out to do in Nolan’s style. It isn’t as surprising as say ‘Inception’ nor does it have that effect of the sublime that ‘Dunkirk’ manages to evoke.

While I appreciate the way ‘Oppenheimer’ highlights the vile practices of any government – in this case, America’s – and man’s own unfitting nature to regulate and safeguard such vital knowledge like how to harness the power of the atom and nuclear energy and what seems like such a nuance treatment of the man’s dealings with socialism and communism; the film is enjoyable for what it is. I don’t know why I was expecting more.

My Rating:

5 stars - Don't Look Up review




OPPENHEIMER is now showing in cinemas nationwide. Buy your tickets here.

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Oppenheimer
Biography, Drama, History
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