Friday, April 12, 2024

“OPPENHEIMER”

THE STORY – The story of American scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his role in the development of the atomic bomb.

THE CAST – Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek & Kenneth Branagh

THE TEAM – Christopher Nolan (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 180 Minutes


“Can you hear the music, Robert?”

Following the release of “Tenet” in 2020, it seemed Christopher Nolan had reached his limit in delivering big-screen action spectacle and heady concepts. The film received mixed reviews and was unceremoniously dropped during the pandemic on streaming by Nolan’s past studio home, Warner Bros. Feeling the film deserved a fair theatrical run, Nolan left Warner Bros. after a nearly thirty-year relationship. He decided to bring his historical biopic film “Oppenheimer” to Universal Pictures. The timing was right for Nolan to scale back and return to the character-driven work of some of his earlier films without massive budgets, such as “Memento” and “The Prestige.” To the shock of absolutely no one, not only has Nolan given us his most layered and textured character study to date, but it’s told on the grandest scale possible as only Nolan (along with a studio eager to please him by giving him everything he could want) can deliver. “Oppenheimer” represents a monumental achievement from a filmmaker who has already given us timeless classics like the two films mentioned before, “The Dark Knight Trilogy,” “Inception,” “Interstellar,” and “Dunkirk.” And yet, “Oppenheimer” stands tall above most of them with breathtaking IMAX visuals, a thunderous soundscape, an exquisite score, a haunting story, and arresting performances that will surely be in the awards conversation later this year.

Based on the 2005 biography “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, “Oppenheimer” tells the story of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, seizing the moment in the leading role of a major Hollywood feature film finally) and his development of the atomic bomb in 1945 which not only ended WWII but launched us into the Cold War arms race with Russia and has been hovering over us with the threat of nuclear war ever since. Like most Christopher Nolan movies, the film is told in a non-linear manner, with Robert being investigated in 1954 by the Atomic Energy Commission (A.E.C.) with a panel led by Gordon Gray (Tony Goldwyn) with Roger Robb (Jason Clarke) serving as special counsel. The hearing has one goal: to discredit Oppenheimer’s name, ensure his security clearance gets revoked, and he never has a say in national defense ever again. Why is this happening? And how could it be happening to the man who led the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, which led to the most significant scientific breakthrough in human history, which singlehandedly ended WWII? There was a point where Oppenheimer was not only considered a hero but the most important man in the world. However, this is the era of McCarthyism. Unfortunately, Oppenheimer’s associations with known communists like his mistress Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) and his far-left extreme opinions on politics have made him a threat in the eyes of the United States government to national security when in reality, the creation of the atomic bomb in the hands of those in power and their egotistical need to maintain their superpower status poses a far greater danger to society as it provokes other countries to speedily develop their own nuclear weapons of mass destruction.

Allowed to give a statement at the hearing, which will hopefully speak to his integrity, character, and patriotism, Oppenheimer’s story is told in a series of flashbacks. Everything taking place in the past from Oppenheimer’s point of view is told in color, while sections of the film told from Lewis Strauss’ (Robert Downey Jr.) point of view are presented in black and white. As chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (A.E.C.), Strauss is seeking a cabinet position in Eisenhower’s administration as Secretary of Commerce. Through Strauss’ testimony and line of questioning about his relationship with Oppenheimer, Nolan weaves a complex but captivating three-hour-long story of inflated ego, fear, power, discovery, and moral torment. It’s his talkiest film to date, with numerous conversations taking place between characters in rooms, discussing scientific terms and jargon many might have forgotten from their high school physics days. Still, if anyone knows how to craft an immersive cinematic experience despite heavy exposition, it’s Christopher Nolan. And an ample reason why “Oppenheimer” succeeds on the same thrilling level as something like “The Social Network” or “J.F.K.” is because, like those films, of its brilliant script and compelling performances from its actors.

As the opening quote of the film states, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. For it, he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity. In an act of martyrdom, Oppenheimer never once fights back against the A.E.C. and instead upholds his innocence, hoping the truth will eventually reveal itself. Cillian Murphy, who has worked with Christopher Nolan a few times before, is finally given a leading role to show the world on such a large canvas what he is capable of, and the result is the culmination of years of hard work in a performance that is nuanced, tormented and entirely engaging. Murphy completely throws himself into the role of Oppenheimer, shouldering the massive film on his back (he’s in nearly every scene) as he takes us through his soaring highs and crushing lows. Aiding Murphy’s portrayal is how Nolan places the audience inside Oppenheimer’s head, using a jolting soundscape, stunning practical visual effects (we see how Oppenheimer views the world through particles and atoms), and a superb score from Ludwig Göransson featuring a satisfying blend of classical orchestral instrumentation such as the violin and electronic sounds such as synths and Geiger counter sound effects.

But Murphy is not alone. In a cast this enormous, some performances will stand out more than others inevitably, but the one who towers above them all is Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss. Freed from the shackles of CGI-infested films and finally allowed to provide a performance that will remind audiences what a singular talent he is, Downey, much like his character, emerges from the shadows and ignites the screen whenever he’s featured. Just as the confirmation hearing starts to possibly not go his way, his third-act meltdown is riveting to watch and just as exciting as any action sequence Nolan has given us in his career. Wearing some subtle makeup, it’s refreshing to watch Downey lose himself in a character and let loose in a project where an electrifying performance can be just as exhilarating as an action setpiece.

Other supporting turns worth mentioning include Benny Safdie as hydrogen bomb creator Edward Teller. With a thick Hungarian accent, Safdie dives deep into a character who clashes morally and scientifically with Oppenheimer (as many do throughout this movie). Safdie completely disappears on screen, just as he did with his transformative performance in “Good Time,” and is another example of what a promising career he will have as a character actor. Matt Damon adds some nice moments of levity and charismatic, commanding screen presence as General Leslie Groves, who oversaw the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer wants to share his findings at Los Alamos with other scientists from all over the world so they can work together to create the atomic bomb faster than the Nazis. At the same time, Groves keeps pushing the phrase “compartmentalization” down everyone’s throats every second he can, hoping the secrets behind what they’re working on will not get leaked to America’s enemies. Despite their differences, an organic bond slowly develops between them, built on mutual respect.

Josh Hartnett (nuclear physicist Ernest Lawrence), Casey Affleck (Boris Pash, an intelligence officer investigating Oppenheimer with a deep disdain for communism), Kenneth Branagh (Niels Bohr, a renowned nuclear physicist, and Oppenheimer’s idol), David Krumholtz as (Isidor Isaac Rabi, a nuclear physicist with moral doubts over creating the atomic bomb), Tom Conti (Albert Einstein, yes, that one), Alden Ehrenreich (as Strauss’ aide), and Macon Blair as Oppenheimer’s legal counsel during the A.E.C. hearing all receive moments to shine within Nolan’s immense screenplay. Even Rami Malek, who you may think has no lines when he’s first introduced due to the size of the cast and maybe just said yes to the project because he wanted to work with Nolan, plays a pivotal role later in the film. And this isn’t even mentioning Matthew Modine, David Dastmalchian, Jack Quaid, Dane DeHaan, and countless others, including one surprising cameo from an Academy Award-winning actor doused in makeup who shares a chilling scene with Oppenheimer after the atomic bomb has been used in Japan.

Despite all these names and the wonderful opportunities they receive to display their craft, Nolan still struggles to present fully dimensional and absorbing female characters. The film’s most prominent female characters are the two most important women in Oppenheimer’s life, his mistress Jean Tatlock (Pugh) and Katherine “Kitty” Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt). Each is undercut by the film’s fluctuating pacing every time their performances start to gain steam in the story. While Blunt fares better than Pugh (who is primarily presented nude in some of the most awkward scenes Nolan has ever directed) when it comes to screentime and is afforded a particular crowd-pleasing moment near the film’s end, the talented British actress has to resort to drunken, exasperated, tearful theatrics to make her character stand out in this sea of men. She does a decent job with the material she’s given, even elevating it sometimes. Still, one cannot help but feel frustrated that her relationship with Oppenheimer wasn’t more than simply a rebellious for the time, devoted wife role.

Of course, this being a Christopher Nolan film, the technical crafts are all spectacular. Hoyte van Hoytema’s gorgeous photography, whether it’s of the New Mexico landscape (shots of Kitty and Oppenheimer on horseback makes you wonder what a Christopher Nolan-directed western would look like) or the black and white sequences (which he and Nolan created black and white IMAX film stock specifically for this film), there is never a moment where you’re not in awe of the images he’s putting on screen. Nolan continuously blends the epic with the intimate, and it all culminates in the detonation of the Trinity Test. After building up the tension, backed by Göransson’s pulse-pounding score, the sheer emotional release from when that button is finally pushed (there was a “near zero” chance the chain reaction from the detonation could set fire to the atmosphere and destroy the entire planet) combining horror and wonder is nothing short of a cinematic miracle. As Oppenheimer says, “Theory will only take you so far,” but with everything caught for real, in camera, by Nolan and Hoyte van Hoytema, with no CGI whatsoever, the final results are enough to reaffirm your belief in the power of cinema and what it can achieve when you have a master storyteller utilizing every resource possible and the best collaborators in the world to offer the audience something poignantly unforgettable.

Four thousand people worked on the Manhattan Project for three years with a budget of $2 billion to create a weapon that forever changed the world and gave us “the power to destroy ourselves.” What should’ve been seen as a great triumph slowly turned into a terrifying nightmare where one man’s reputation was destroyed, and the country never looked back once those two bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. We never see the dropping of the bombs nor the destruction they caused, but it’s alluded to; we see it on Oppenheimer’s face through Cillian Murphy’s astonishing performance, captured with such grandeur by Nolan and his team as his face fills the frame. A look plagued by guilt but forever wrestling with the scientific accomplishment he and the other scientists performed at Los Alamos. Such dichotomy is exemplified through Nolan’s refined storytelling as he plunges us into the past, takes us through a non-linear story, brings it all together in a grand finale only he can conjure, and takes us up to the present as the effects of “Oppenheimer” the film and Oppenheimer the man linger long after the final credits roll. Never before has a Christopher Nolan film felt this urgent and vital, making it not only a masterpiece of the historical biopic genre but a masterpiece of cinematic history in general.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Christopher Nolan mixes the epic with the intimate to produce one of the most mesmerizing historical biopics of all time. Cillian Murphy finally gets his moment and owns it while Robert Downey Jr. turns in his most captivating performance in years. Breathtaking cinematography, score, and sound work.

THE BAD - Nolan still struggles to write compelling female characters. Although there are moments of brilliance, taken as a whole at three hours long, the film's overall pacing can feel off at times.

THE OSCARS - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing & Best Original Score (Won), Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Production Design & Best Sound (Nominated)

THE FINAL SCORE - 9/10

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Matt Neglia
Matt Negliahttps://nextbestpicture.com/
Obsessed about the Oscars, Criterion Collection and all things film 24/7. Critics Choice Member.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Christopher Nolan mixes the epic with the intimate to produce one of the most mesmerizing historical biopics of all time. Cillian Murphy finally gets his moment and owns it while Robert Downey Jr. turns in his most captivating performance in years. Breathtaking cinematography, score, and sound work.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Nolan still struggles to write compelling female characters. Although there are moments of brilliance, taken as a whole at three hours long, the film's overall pacing can feel off at times.<br><br> <b>THE OSCARS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-picture/">Best Picture</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-director/">Best Director</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-actor/">Best Actor</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-supporting-actor/">Best Supporting Actor</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-cinematography/">Best Cinematography</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-film-editing/">Best Film Editing</a> & <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-original-score/">Best Original Score</a> (Won), <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-supporting-actress/">Best Supporting Actress</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-adapted-screenplay/">Best Adapted Screenplay</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-costume-design/">Best Costume Design</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-makeup-and-hairstyling/">Best Makeup and Hairstyling</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-production-design/">Best Production Design</a> & <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-sound/">Best Sound</a> (Nominated)<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>9/10<br><br>"OPPENHEIMER"