Oppenheimer Cillian Murphy Christopher Nolan review

Oppenheimer is unmistakably a Christopher Nolan film — for better and for worse

3.5 out of 5 stars

As mainstream American filmmaking becomes increasingly monopolized by intellectual property and corporate-mandated attempts at subverting that same intellectual property, critical discourse has shifted somewhat towards a particular stripe of filmmaker, now accused of “always making the same movie.” It’s a criticism that was lobbed at Wes Anderson for Asteroid City and it’s one that I myself have thrown at Christopher Nolan, one of the few directors to exist as somewhat of a household name. I was never that taken by Nolan’s work, though I always appreciated it: his cold, calculating and complicated films never struck much of a chord with me, and I was stuck admiring them from afar, like a piece of machinery. To me, these films were “all the same” because I reacted to them in essentially the same way each time, regardless of style, theme or approach. My own particular tastes and affinities became Nolan’s stumbling block, through no fault of his own.

I say all this because Oppenheimer is Christopher Nolan’s most “different” movie in terms of topic and scope and, yet, there’s no mistaking it for a movie made by anyone but Christopher Nolan. A three-hour epic centred mainly around white men in suits sitting around stuffy rooms debating things, it features absolutely no time travel or inter-dimensional trickery, and yet, it’s impossible not to feel the same fuzzy emotional barrier between subject and audience that I essentially always find in Nolan’s films. He’s an exacting, precise and involved filmmaker who, it seems, has moral and thematic obsessions that are almost diametrically opposed to mine.

Oppenheimer, as its title suggests, is centred on J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), a theoretical physicist known to most as the creator of the atomic bomb. There are three distinct timelines weaving through Oppenheimer: the first is a traditional linear biopic-like exploration of Oppenheimer’s life, the second is a claustrophobic recreation of the 1954 hearings meant to determine whether Oppenheimer was a traitor to his country and the third is a black-and-white framing device centring on Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. The film essentially follows Oppenheimer as he rises through the ranks of the scientific community as a bit of an outsider, a sometimes Communist sympathizer with conflicting moral positions on his own work in creating the bomb and becoming a tool of the military-industrial complex — sometimes willingly, sometimes not.

Oppenheimer is dense with information and uses exposition rather sparingly. If characters are constantly explaining things to each other, they’re explaining things that are often out of grasp to the average viewer. Nolan cannot really be accused of simplifying or smoothing out these complex ideas, though theoretical physics buffs may disagree. Nevertheless, Oppenheimer presents an insane amount of detail for an ostensible blockbuster. Taking a page from international co-production war epics of the 1960s and ’70s, Nolan packs his cast with character actors of all stripes to keep us vaguely in the loop as to what this endless parade of dudes in uniforms might represent. The effect is a little surprising at first — especially when Oscar winners are trotted out for what appear to be three-line cameos — but it helps plebeians like yours truly navigate the world of Oppenheimer.

Tom Conti as Albert Einstein in Oppenheimer

Not exactly anyone’s idea of a political filmmaker, Nolan approaches the creation of the atomic bomb somewhat cautiously (and, some might say, with a conservative penchant). Oppenheimer is depicted as someone with complicated, sometimes contradictory politics for whom the possibility of scientific advancement takes precedence over what that advancement might be used for… until that end goal is so clear that there’s no going back. It’s an intensely focused film; Cillian Murphy appears in just about every scene and, if he’s not there, he’s being discussed by other characters. It seems clear to me that Nolan sees a bit of himself in Oppenheimer, a man so dedicated to a specific pursuit that he doesn’t see (or refuses to see) what its ripple effects are. It’s inevitably a little corny in spots (even Nolan, the world’s most humourless filmmaker, can’t resist getting a couple of “if they knew then what we know now” cracks), but it remains a film with a great deal of confidence both in itself and in the viewer.

Alas, Nolan doesn’t exactly get away from the criticisms usually directed his way. Once again, female characters are few and far between and generally given the short shrift. Emily Blunt gets a little more to do as Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, but the fact that most of this story has to be told in boardrooms frequented by PhDs and military officers in the 1940s means there’s a whole lot of white bread testosterone on hand. Despite being the most “grounded” of his films (Dunkirk being the exception), it’s still difficult for Nolan to properly access emotion, even if he explicitly draws parallels between the atomic bomb and Oppenheimer’s panic attacks. As central to the film as Oppenheimer might be, there are long stretches of the film where he (and everyone surrounding him) feels like a bit of a cipher. 
These are criticisms that essentially apply to all of Nolan’s movies, as I previously mentioned — the man is nothing if not himself all over the gargantuan three-hour, 70mm prints of this film.

Even with these caveats in mind, I found Oppenheimer to be a surprisingly engrossing experience. Nolan uses the expansive 70mm frame not to capture breathtaking vistas and exciting special effects (though there are a few of those in there as well) but to bring us as close as possible to these cramped interrogation rooms and stuffy laboratories. As hermetic as Oppenheimer can be, it’s nice to see a filmmaker of Nolan’s stature use all of his resources to make something as specifically, oddly personal and thorny as this. ■

Oppenheimer (directed by Christopher Nolan)

Oppenheimer opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, July 21.

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