‘Oppenheimer’ Marks One of Nolan’s Greatest Yet Politically Neutral Films (REVIEW)

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita […] ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we’ve all thought that, one way or another.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer

It’s finally here. It is one of this year’s most anticipated films. Or, half of a double feature that was not intended as one. Dubbed “Barbieheimer” on online spaces, the release of Oppenheimer has gained notoriety not necessarily because of its subject matter but because of its coincidental release date shared with Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. Yes, that Barbie. The mass-produced doll with long legs, bleached blonde hair, and a very evenly distributed tan. Somehow, the combination of Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb as he was dubbed later on, and one of America’s most famous icons of femininity having films released on the same day caused an online frenzy unimaginable to no one. However, the phenomenon that emerged from “Barbieheimer” is for another piece altogether. 

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer (COURTESY: Universal Pictures)

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a gnarly tale of one man’s hubris and Western civilization’s callous nature. Of small rooms where just a few men wield power without impunity. It’s also one of Nolan’s most personal, existential meditations yet. A common thread in all of Nolan’s films is the running questions of “who are we?” and “what are we?” which more often than not is only afforded to white men. Considering the history of white male directors attempting to dissect the lives of non-white people, Nolan should stick to his preferred model. Write about what you know, as they say. Going from the macro of space in Interstellar to the microscopic power of the atom in Oppenheimer, Nolan delivers an epic for the ages. It’s a brash, unyielding, and polarizing film that raises complex questions about the violent power that lurks behind closed doors. 

Starring Cillian Murphy as the infamous American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer is a quick summation of the events that led to the creation of the atomic bomb and the moral and ethical repercussions of Oppenheimer’s ambition and singular vision. Thankfully, there’s no cutesy reminiscing about his childhood. In 1926, we meet a young 22-year-old doctoral student studying under experimental physicist Patrick Blackett at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge and follow his trajectory up until the first experimental launch of the nuclear bomb known as the Trinity test. Bombs like the ones they tested would soon after decimate two of Japan’s largest cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki along with thousands of civilians. What proceeds in the back half of the film, is the repercussions of Oppenheimer’s own personal hubris and tunnel vision in the name of scientific innovation.

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer (COURTESY: Universal Pictures)

Arguably, one of the film’s largest pitfalls is its pacing. It’s a lot of ground to cover even for its almost three-hour run time. A lot of it felt choppy and rushed but that third and final act did a lot of heavy lifting to make up for these minor blemishes. One of Nolan’s greatest strengths is the way he shapes testimony and time. There’s a purposeful distortion to the way Nolan recreates memory that is akin to telling our own stories to others. Where the truth is never quite so rigid because our own thoughts and feelings tinge on those testimonies. Which is always in tension with the way our own structures demand “truth” as if it were a simple black-and-white representation of it. 

It’s no coincidence that the film is split into black and white and color. Color is given to the parts of the film that feel the most morally ambiguous — scripted in the first-person in the screenplay, these are the scenes from Oppenheimer’s personal point of view, while the black and white coloring is used for scenes where governmental structures try to draw a harsh and arbitrary line between “good vs evil.” Nolan’s heavy-handed metaphors of morality border on cliche, especially when it comes to his own personal politics infiltrating the film, painting a picture of a much neutral filmmaker. This is not to say that the film entirely holds. It just feels like it could’ve gone further in. Especially in “blink and you miss it” moments where Florence Pugh’s Jean Tatlock, who was Oppenheimer’s Communist lover, is dunked into the bathtub water by a leather-covered hand. This implies, that in one of Oppenheimer’s many theories of how Jean died, the government may have had a hand in her death. However, the moment is so fleeting you wonder if it took place on screen at all. These are the moments Nolan could’ve really dug into a political landscape of paranoia and real governmental violence that set out to cover what happened at the Manhattan Project during WWII. Instead, we got flashes of that uncertainty that would’ve made the film feel more important. Neutrality is often worse than the full brunt of hatred in moments like this. 

Florence Pugh as Jean Tactlock and Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer (COURTESY: Universal Pictures)

What really made a film like Oppenheimer shine is its grounding force of performances by a myriad of talented actors. It should go without saying that Muprhy as the titular role of Robert Oppenheimer further solidified his status as one of our best modern actors. While it’s tiring to make comparisons, I can’t help but notice how Cillian Murphy fills the gaping hole left behind by acting giant Daniel Day-Lewis with such ease. Murphy brings depth to what could’ve easily been just another generic biopic role that feels more like an impersonation of the real man. His performance feels like it’s taken root so deep down into who Robert was, that at no point did it feel like I should question it. Reimaginations of a real person who feels so authentically human are far more interesting than a play-by-play of someone’s mannerisms. It’s not about physically embodying Robert Oppenheimer but giving life to the more messy and complicated aspects of the man that sealed Murphy’s performance as one of the best in biopics. 

Honorable mentions go to Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer and Robert Downey Jr. as commission’s chairman Lewis Strauss. Blunt can take the smallest role and expand it until it becomes endless and memorable. Her role as Oppenheimer’s wife becomes almost as integral as that of all the other political figures who later condemn Robert. She shapes Robert as a man and not just a scientist. Adds depth to who he was at home, as a father, husband, and ultimately, human being. She doesn’t just become a prop to the man but casts a mirror on Oppenheimer in various levels of his life. Only a talented actress like Blunt could turn what is stereotypical in the biopic and turned it into a fascinating study of the women that lurk in the shadows of men like Robert Oppenheimer. 

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer (COURTESY: Universal Pictures)

As for Downey, there’s a large sigh breath of relief to see him back on the big screen doing anything that’s not Marvel-related. He’s been missed in a role outside of Tony Stark and proves he’s still very much an actor willing to dig deep to pull off a performance as he did in Oppenheimer. The real magic of Nolan’s direction is his ability to turn A-list actors, who often feel like parodies of themselves in films like this, and reminds us that they are actors. Raw and unfiltered artists come from backgrounds on the stage. They shed their A-lister auras and go back to their roots whenever they work with Nolan. An actor’s dream. 

This review would turn into thousands of more words if given the chance because Oppenheimer is the kind of film that could be dissected and prodded at from various angles. Whether negative or positive, a film like this one is always a win for cinema. At least it is for me. Its flaws are as endless as its virtues. Most of the time, it’s a film like this one that inspires some of the most important conversations of our time. In the end, Nolan delivered a film that visually and thematically dug its way into the marrow. He pushes the boundaries of filmmaking in creating a sonic and opulent experience of our worst modern crimes. That sentence alone can be subject to its contradictions, much like the film itself. 

Rating: 9/10

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