There are few directors working today as iconic – or as infuriating – as Christopher Nolan. After the unstoppable success of The Dark Knight, Nolan’s films have gotten bigger and bolder in size and scope. Yet the more grandiose his films have gotten, the more his plots have become more convoluted, with the most on-the-nose dialogue imaginable. And after the absolute disaster that was Tenet, the question has remained “Does Nolan really have the juice to remain at the top of the field?”
In his newest film, Oppenheimer, Nolan turns his attention to a historical epic, and certainly one with a hefty amount of weight. A grand epic about patriotism, science, massive guilt, and being betrayed by your country for independent thought, it’s hard not to be won over by Oppenheimer’s scope. Whether it’s the direction, the cinematography, or the massive, massive ensemble (three previous Best Actor winners show up in three-minute cameos), this is a big, stunning feat of filmmaking. Unfortunately, it also elevates Nolan’s shortcomings in writing a script – especially in the film’s first act.
As with all Nolan films, the story intercuts between three specific points of time, each flashing back into the others. The main thrust of the story follows J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) as he goes from a renowned scientific mind with infrequent dabbling in activism in the late 30s to the foremost mind on the Manhattan Project. His vision and work with some of the greatest minds of the 20th century resulted in the Trinity Test, which ultimately resulted in the atomic bomb.
The second jumps ahead to the early 1950s, where Oppenheimer is being investigated by the U.S. security council for his former Communist ties and railroaded for his refusal to build the hydrogen bomb. And the third follows Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) as he struggles with a contentious Cabinet hearing over his former relationship with the now-disgraced acclaimed scientist and the role he may have played in his downfall.
It’s hard not to be won over by the sheer size and scope of Nolan’s skill behind the camera. Even if you’re attuned to his gimmicks and clichés (and once you see them, they cannot be unseen), they still mostly work in an exciting, enticing manner. The acclaimed filmmaker has crafted a massive film about the nature of obsession and the cost of unfettered imagination. After all, Oppenheimer basically built the bomb solely to see if the scientific theories would hold true, and once he understood the horrors he had unleashed, his efforts to put the genie back in the bottle earned him public castigation.
Oppenheimer offers us a look at a more mature look at Nolan the director, who on a technical level is at the top of his game. No longer are his gimmicky plays with time and editing merely for show. Here, Nolan offers some of his most poignant moments to date – perhaps the best example of this is a precise fadeout on Oppy celebrating his great accomplishments into a moment of realization that the U.S. government has been lying to him. Meanwhile, he continues to offer up next-level cinematic designs, whether it’s one of the best sound designs put to film (your teeth will feel ready to shatter under the weight of the explosions) or Hoyte van Hoytema’s masterful cinematography.
Nolan’s precision in creating this cinematic landscape perfectly mirrors the story he’s trying to tell, watching a group of geniuses try to create an entirely new science, culminating in a truly riveting Trinity Test. And in the film’s final act, intercutting two separate trials inexorably linked in Oppenheimer’s public flogging, Nolan manages to compare injustice, justice, human frailty, and karma to great effect.
Ironically, however, Nolan’s best moments behind the camera may be unintentional – with all his self-seriousness in telling this Important True Story, it’s hard to imagine he intentionally got as silly as to let Oppenheimer don his iconic hat in the same manner as Batman putting on his mask. Yet these moments merely add to the charm of the story, a sense of whimsy in a sea of serious men unleashing a power they cannot comprehend on an unsuspecting world.
Oppenheimer’s fatal flaw, however, is its first act. As great in every way as the film’s second and third hours become, the first hour of Oppenheimer is arguably the worst filmmaking Nolan has ever produced – and that includes Tenet. While some of this has to do with the first act’s inability to decide how it views Oppenheimer the figure, much of it has to do with Nolan as a filmmaker. Things become worrying when he utilizes the “Look, his brain can see the molecules!” trope approximately fifteen times in the first fifteen minutes, before never appearing again. It’s Nolan’s greatest weakness: when incapable of properly forming a character, use a fun gimmick to distract the audience!
Meanwhile, it’s clear that Nolan refuses to accept criticism or grow as an artist. After three straight films with complaints about the dialogue being unintelligible, Nolan once again proves that he has no f*cking clue how to properly mix his sound. No matter how impeccable the sound design, or melodic the score by Ludwig Göransson may be, it doesn’t matter if it overpowers every scene to the point I can’t hear what’s going on.
And then there are the female characters. Often listed as Nolan’s Achilles’ heel, Oppenheimer’s underdeveloped portrayals of Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt) and Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) may be his worst to date. While the real Kitty Oppenheimer did suffer from alcoholism and postpartum depression that strained her relationship with her husband, Nolan directs Blunt into an overacting hall of fame, sloshing drinks around while giving a performance more akin to Mommie Dearest than anything else she’s accomplished in her career.
Still, at least Nolan course corrects with Kitty and gives her a powerhouse sequence in the film’s final act. Poor Florence Pugh is left to flail for her life in the role of Oppenheimer’s true love and eventual mistress. The real Jean Tatlock was a fiery defender the labor movements and a famous Communist organizer who either took her own life due to severe depression or was murdered by the CIA. None of this, of course, is mentioned by Nolan, who simply depicts her as an always-naked woman whose life is cut short because Oppy didn’t love her enough (outside of a lip service reference to the mystery of her death).
Pugh mostly has two scenes in the film, and both of them involve her explicit sexual relationship with Oppenheimer, and each is dumber than the last. The first – and I’m not kidding here – sees her convince Oppy to declare his famous catchphrase for the first time during coitus. The second, I won’t spoil, but its context and execution is so gross I briefly considered surrendering my defense of artistic freedom and joining the “sex scenes are bad” crowd on the Internet. Between some of the film’s more cloying clichés and the egregious portrayals of women, one has to wonder if Jonathan Nolan is the actual writer in the family – after all, Chris has never written a script solo as good as the ones with his brother.
It’s essentially a fool’s errand to try to select any names out of this massive, massive ensemble (there are about five Oscar winners in the cast and of those five, only one has more than a handful of lines and 30 seconds of screentime). Obviously one must talk about Murphy, the acclaimed character actor given the task of carrying the film as the enigmatic and grandiose Oppenheimer. Murphy brings a pathos to the performance and a haunted soulfulness behind the eyes that elevates the character’s paper-thin characterization to extraordinary heights. Blunt, as mentioned before, is mostly wasted until the final act, when she gives a master class in acting, while Pugh never recovers, but that’s mostly the script’s fault.
Outside of Murphy, the best-in-show performances mostly belong to the heels. Downey Jr. is very strong as Strauss, doing an excellent job of holding off his character’s sleazy contempt until the pivotal moment. Meanwhile, Matt Damon may give the film’s stealth best performance, mostly because he’s giving a performance akin to an over-the-top 1960s epic. It’s not subtle, but it seems more akin with the film Nolan should have been making all along. And while we’re on the subject of villains, Dane Dehaan should team up with Nolan for every film going forward, because it’s clear that the director knows what to do with him. This man is a shockingly effective weasel, and it may be the best role of the young man’s career. And amongst the good guys, Alden Ehrenreich shows up as an effective voice of reason while comedian David Krumholtz steals the film as Oppy’s lifelong friend Isidor Isaac Rabi.
Oppenheimer is a massive undertaking, it cannot be denied. It is certainly epic, in size and scope and messiness. It’s a hard film to quantify – a three-hour drama that mostly involves courtrooms and scientific lectures and approximately five minutes of action – less than 3% of the entire film – all playing out on the largest screen possible. It’s hard to tell viewers that they must rush out to see a film with the caveat “Ok, the first hour is terrible, but the next two fly by!” But it would be downright wrong to tell viewers to shy away from a cinematic experience unlike anything else out there – as revolutionary as it is riveting. I suppose a complicated, yet brilliant film is a worthy tribute to the man who became a legend at the cost of his soul and the fate of the world.
Oppenheimer is now playing in theaters nationwide