Review: Nolan's "Oppenheimer" is full of fire, but it left me cold
For all its sound and fury, this one mostly numbed me
Walking out of Oppenheimer, I will admit that part of me felt tempted to throw up my hands in frustration and say that Christopher Nolan has disappeared up his own ass – that his writing is so clinical and expository that real characters, let alone human beings, are never able to take shape, and that the length and scope and relentless motion of his cacophonous style is so oppressive that real ideas cannot emerge from it. That by the time he lands at the denouement he has spent three hours intricately building towards, I am so numbed by all of it that I cannot feel whatever impact the film might be otherwise capable of landing.
But then, it’s never that simple with Nolan, is it? I definitely felt a similar frustration walking out of his last two features, Dunkirk and Tenet, before later warming up to both of them. And as with every film he has ever made, you are guaranteed a certain floor of quality from Christopher Nolan. Oppenheimer is, like the rest, constructed of immaculate craftsmanship; of intricate and ambitious editing and big, beautiful images capturing practical, tactile sets and effects; of a roiling and inventive score empowering its composer to express the film in simultaneous symphony; of a giant ensemble populated with magnificent performers doing committed and sometimes passionate work. Nolan is nothing if not a great conductor of talent, and he is absolutely capable of wrangling all these artists towards the creation of moments and sequences that are unforgettable. When Oppenheimer arrives at the Trinity test and its aftermath, the film is a force of nature, expressing the horror and awe of this Rubicon being irrevocably crossed in breathtaking, stomach-churning fashion, and then skillfully suspending us within the mind of the man who afterwards had to walk through a world in which he had just planted the seeds of annihilation.
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The problem is that for most of its three-hours-on-the-dot run-time, Oppenheimer lacks the clarity of intent of this master-stroke middle stretch. The film is structurally and editorially ambitious, with two parallel points of view: ‘Fission,’ following Oppenheimer himself (Cillian Murphy), and ‘Fusion,’ following Lewis Strauss, the man who would betray him (Robert Downey Jr.), the former shot in color and the latter in black-and-white (both on a mix of standard 65mm and IMAX 65mm, the same set-up Nolan has employed since Dunkirk). The film broadly moves linearly through decades of history before, during, and after the Manhattan project, but with expressive leaps backwards and forwards in time, some it cut with the machine-gun rapidity of Oliver Stone’s JFK, some with the poetic interiority of late-period Terrence Malick. Like most of Nolan’s films since The Dark Knight, it is scored through more or less in its entirety, the music omnipresent, and a high level of tension and momentum maintained at all times.
Yet for the most part, underneath all the sound and fury, Oppenheimer is mostly a very traditional biopic, attempting to attend to as many corners of its subject’s life as it can, and losing the forest for the trees as it does so. Nolan has real ideas on his mind here, about the magnetic allure of even the most destructive scientific breakthroughs and the question of Oppenheimer’s personal culpability, but he is also obsessed with the minutiae of the work at Los Alamos, with the various indiscretions and associations Oppenheimer was later tarred with, and with the large, complicated web of people who passed through his orbit on the way to completing the bomb. I will admit I mostly found the film’s first half a slog, endless reams of expository dialogue fired back and forth with extremely rapid cuts, all of it so overtightened that instead of feeling the sweep of history barreling us along, I mostly felt a sense of excruciating elongation.
And after the Bomb goes off and the film briefly flirts with a real, sustained engagement with the inner-life of its haunted subject – a scene where Oppenheimer is greeted by thunderous applause but can only see and hear the impact of his creation is just as impactful as the Trinity test centerpiece – Nolan ushers us back into boardrooms and Senate chambers for another hour engaged in the complicated minutiae of how Oppenheimer was abandoned by the Cold War-era American political establishment. There is intent here, undoubtedly, all of it building up to Nolan’s closing statement about the way the world alternately constructs and denigrates heroes to justify its continued march towards oblivion, but I simply think Nolan loses the thread amidst the excess. Once the Bomb goes off, the man ceases to matter – has to cease to matter, I think, at least at the sheer level of immersive detail Nolan wants to illustrate here; yet once it does, and once we catch a glimpse of Oppenheimer confronting the new world he just helped birth, we’re back into rapid-fire exposition about the man and his associations and those working against him and all the other minutiae that now feels so horribly irrelevant.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki haunt this film, as they must any movie depicting the creation of the Atomic Bomb. To the film’s credit, it does not fully indulge in the revisionist fiction that these bombings were unavoidable horrors essential to ending the war, the lie I was taught in school and that is readily debunked by reams of primary sources, including on-the-record testimonials by those who would know best (like Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1963, saying that “the Japanese were ready to surrender, and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing”). Nolan’s film lets smarmy generals tell us the lie, and later has Oppenheimer himself express doubt, as he comes to realize the bombings weren’t so much strategic military action against Japan as they were a bloody demonstration for the eyes of the Soviet Union on the eve of the Cold War. And in achieving this distinction, Oppenheimer absolutely does better than most American media, which continues to parrot the lies told to make one of history’s greatest war crimes go down smoothly. (For more on the history of the lies told about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I would highly recommend this video by YouTube essayist Shaun, which is nearly as long as Oppenheimer, but also densely researched and extremely informative)
And yet, I ultimately think the structure of Nolan’s film prevents it from ever adequately accounting for or reckoning with the most direct impact of Oppenheimer’s creation. It almost gets there, in the scenes directly after the Trinity test when Oppenheimer starts to feel the weight of what he has made, but just as it does, the center of gravity shifts back to the politics of Oppenheimer’s security clearance and Lewis Strauss’ petty vendetta, and it all feels so small, so unimportant, so meaningless in the face of the hundreds of thousands who burned for a lie, so the technology Oppenheimer gave the world’s most powerful military force could be shown off before the world. Maybe that’s Nolan’s point. I don’t know. But there is a moment where we watch Oppenheimer as he is shown images of the human toll on the ground in Japan, and I find it telling that we only see his reaction, not the horror he is looking at. I will not claim to know what the right call is here; choosing whether or not to show the victims of such atrocities is awash in complicated moral questions. But there is a tradition of films dealing with the topic of these bombings using archival footage to make us confront what happened, most famously in Alain Renais’ Hiroshima mon amour, a film Oppenheimer nods to in its editing style on more than one occasion. My concern is that Nolan refuses to show the images not out of sensitivity to the victims, but because it would distract from the story he wants to tell of Oppenheimer and his martyrdom. And if so, I think that’s the miscalculation.
I do know that, amidst the flurry of dialogue and exposition and cuts and movement, Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a film desperately bereft of characters. It is a film with many people and many actors, yes, but the film is so tightly edited, so constantly in motion, so embroiled in a rhythm of never-ending cuts and montage that all these on-screen figures feel like paddles to ping-pong dialogue, not people who lived and breathed. The actors try their best. Some of the performers here are magnificent. Robert Downey Jr. in particular is a pleasure, both because it’s been a while since we’ve seen him on screen at all, much less in this kind of serious, dramatic mode, and because he does some of the film’s most powerful, nuanced work. I do not claim to know the actual history here, but I wish the script didn’t completely sell out Strauss as a self-serving idiot, a cartoon villain of moustache-twirling ego, because the character makes a point about Oppenheimer near the end that, as delivered by Downey, would justify the whole movie and many of its creative choices to me, if the film were willing to damn Oppenheimer, rather than settle on the conclusion that Oppenheimer damned himself, which is something of a cop out.
Cillian Murphy is tremendous in the title role; this is the best work of his career, and if he wins his Oscar for this I would not object. Look at the careful variations in how he speaks and holds himself across the film’s many time periods; while light make-up and costuming changes help sell the various ages, Nolan mostly relies on the performance to sell the scope of time, and Murphy is every bit up to that challenge. And yet, the construction of the film is such that a character never really emerges. Oppenheimer is both the subject of the film and the gnawing absence at its center, a man of tremendous ambition and ego whose goals are vague or nonexistent. Why he wanted to build the Bomb, beyond the simple fact that he had the opportunity to do so, is a mystery, as is most of his personality and drive. Some of this is, I think, intentional; some it feels like a character lost in the swirl of noise and incident with which Nolan populates his film.
Still, the men here fare far better than the woman, and this is where we need to have a frank conversation about Christopher Nolan’s abhorrent track record with his female characters and the actresses who portray them. He barely features women anymore, for starters; Dunkirk had none, despite the well-documented presence of female nurses on the beach and in the rescue vessels, and Tenet had one, played by the wonderfully charming Elizabeth Debicki, reduced under Nolan’s direction to a glum void. Oppenheimer is even worse. The women here are treated as obligatory, verging on contemptuous – Oppenheimer’s wife and lovers are not people, but bodies, props to populate domestic scenes or bare their bodies during sex, but never to be characters or express ideas. Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh are incredible performers, and you would never know it watching this film, which feels like it was written and directed by an all-male species of space aliens with no knowledge of an opposite sex. I find the Barbenheimer phenomenon as amusing as the next guy, but in terms of actual intertextual substance between the two films, what is most interesting to me is how even in a movie that is explicitly about the soul-crushing evils of patriarchy, Greta Gerwig gives the men of Barbie more rich and varied shades of humanity than Nolan even attempts to gesture towards in Oppenheimer, a film about the potential destruction of life on earth in which half the population is rendered fundamentally secondary.
A conversation should also be had about Nolan’s use of music, which, as mentioned earlier, has been omnipresent across the run-time of his films since at least The Dark Knight. Other than the detonation of the Trinity test, there is no sustained stretch of Oppenheimer that is not scored through, and combined with the rapid and dense editing, the result is heavy and cacophonous. I think this effect has worked for Nolan in the past, as in Interstellar or Tenet, but it just feels like Nolan has refused to evolve here. Ludwig Göransson has written what is, on its own, some of the best music ever written for Nolan’s work, but as used in Oppenheimer, it simply smothers the film. The music is so pervasive and unceasing that it overwhelms the rhythms between actors, drowning out the silences that establish and reveal character. As with much of the film, I am of two minds: Göransson’s compositions and instrumentation are one of the film’s major artistic triumphs, and its wall-to-wall deployment nearly sinks the entire ship.
My thoughts on this film are and shall probably remain for some time unsettled. Oppenheimer is, for better and for worse, not quite the film I expected. I will give it kudos for not being the rah-rah jingoistic version of the A-bomb origin story I feared we might get from a director with strongly conservative tendencies. I appreciate it for being a biopic that doesn’t need to support itself with reams of Wikipedia text at the end, saying what it wants to say in the stream of sound and images. And I do, as always, appreciate Nolan’s aptitude for separating giant studios from ungodly sums of money to make original projects of personal interest, when those dollars would usually be spent producing superhero garbage. But in the end, Oppenheimer left me cold, Nolan’s house style numbing me to everything that is truly compelling here. I do not hate it, but as Nolan’s subject matter evolves, I wish he would allow his filmmaking to evolve with it, to pare down where necessary, to let performances breathe, to live more fully in these incredible moments he is capable of constructing.
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