Somebody set up us the bomb
The first two hours of Oppenheimer are pretty close to exactly what you’d expect of a Christopher Nolan-helmed biopic. I mean that in a good way! Gobsmacking production values enhancing a real life story. Nolan’s usual weak spot of struggling to develop multi-dimensional characters comes basically pre-solved for him with complex, well-documented historical figures whose lives are filled with nuances and beguiling contradictions. And it culminates with a towering beacon of an image, something that will forever imprint on your brain: the Trinity test, an early runaway favorite for Scene of the Year. I don’t think I’m getting carried away to proclaim that it tops the rotating hallway and Joker’s interrogation and the Knightfall sewer fight and the black hole and every other iconic moment from Christopher Nolan’s career to date.
And after the Big Bang, the movie chugs along for another hour of film that’s not exactly bad, but is certainly anticlimactic. A bunch of people argue in a hearing rooms, constantly stating at face value movie’s themes and moral dilemmas, as if the sheer repetition of “Was Oppenheimer a moral person? Was he insufficiently loyal to his cause? Did his communist sympathies compromise his work?” makes the questions poignant. The answer: It’s subjective and unanswerable, ya dinguses. And yet, Nolan doesn’t even really lean into the subjectivity — there are two legitimately great scenes that do (one a rally that turns into an apocalyptic horror; the other a hallucinated sex scene), but Nolan is too clockwork and orderly in his thinking to make the film elliptical or blurry-edged.
The film’s structure is a tough sell for me. Two hours of greatness followed by a fine but brutally extended hour-long coda makes for a slog. The movie is still a hell of a triumph — one of the best of the year so far, for sure. And maybe it will play better on replay when I have a roadmap for the story in my head. Every person I know who’s seen it two or more times has said they liked it more the second time than the first. But Oppenheimer seems to me like Nolan was one aggressive revision away from a masterpiece, and so I feel the tiniest twinge of disappointment along with my enthusiasm for its achievement.
Oppenheimer is a work of astonishing cinematic craft, almost to the point of exhaustion. It’s a movie that begs to be admired. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema do things with an IMAX camera never done before. I mean this literally — Nolan’s team invented black-and-white film stock for the IMAX equipment. I watched the movie on an 85-foot screen at the 1.43 ratio on a dual-laser projection system, and the precision of focus and richness of picture were entrancing.
But I think I sound design tops the visual design. The theater where I saw the film has, in addition to its hi-def IMAX projector, bone-rattling audio making every thrum of the score and boom of the bass hit with a wallop. This is a bravura use of sound in a movie: an incessant, hypnotic score by Ludwig Göransson raising and raising and raising the tension until we experience the temporary relief of silent absolution at the Trinity test. Nolan and his team cleverly introduce a time delay between explosions first seen in video and then heard in audio — which, of course, is what you’d experience in real life when viewing an explosion from a safe distance. But it feels novel and disorienting in a film, and brings an extra layer of tension bordering on suspense to all of the explosion scenes.
The film spans three timelines. The first covers the titular scientist’s young adulthood in 1926 through his leadership of the Manhattan Project ending in 1945, shot in color. The second and third timelines are two prongs in the future: 1954 while Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) is interrogated about his messy past and his work on the bomb; and then 1959 during the confirmation hearing for prospective Secretary of Commerce Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.). If the last one of those threads feels the least connected to Oppenheimer’s story, it’s not a coincidence: it’s the material that Nolan stretches hardest to connect to the core narrative of Oppneheimer’s life. In the spirit of Memento, the alternating color and black-and-white serves two purposes: It offers a visual key to telling when we are in the story; but it also adds some thematic layers onto the story — the black-and-white later sequences are the more elliptical and murky segments. The nuts-and-bolts bomb-building has resolved, and the shadowy human fallout of the project gets center frame.
The cast is an epic sprawl of talent depicting an enormous roster of historical figures. Murphy is a no-duh contender for Best Actor, putting the entire movie on his shoulders with precision and vulnerability. Downey, Jr. is second on the totem pole here, giving a terrific take on a politician whose integrity and self-serving impulses clash until the “bombshell” at the end of the film. Murphy is so central that the rest of the huge cast occasionally feels a bit underserved: Emily Blunt lingers in the background then gets one great scene; Florence Pugh strips down naked three times and half-whispers in a sultry voice; Rami Malek gets about 15 seconds of screentime; and that’s not even mentioning about 20 terrific supporting and bit roles.
On top of being stacked, the cast is also just very weird. Lots of left-field actors. Alex Wolff and Josh Peck? Was Nolan’s casting director John Papsidera watching a lot of Nickelodeon in 2007? Alden Ehrlenrich, Olivia Thirlby, and Josh Hartnett are solid here, but why them? They’re all more famous for dud performances than great ones prior to this. David Krumholtz, the comedian best known for 10 Things I Hate About You and making out with Lindsay Cardellini on Freaks and Geeks, gives a performance suggesting he has a long career as a character actor ahead of him. Over and over while watching this movie I thought “is that really who I think it is?” And I was usually right.
Oppenheimer has been the beneficiary of the quirky Barbenheimer viral sensation and will end up a very profitable film. This is a major coup — it’s hard to imagine an R-rated period drama with a 9-figure budget making real money in most circumstances. (Poor Babylon.) I suspect it will be in play for Best Picture and double-digit Academy Award nominations, too. I won’t begrudge it any of that: This is the reason we go see movies in premium formats, a real film-snob, for-love-of-the-art accomplishment. It’s got some narrative slackness in its final hour and some bumpy edges, but it’s one of the year’s must-watch films.