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Review: Oppenheimer (2023)

Oppenheimer (2023)

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Premise: Based on true events. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) leads the development of the atomic bomb and is later slandered as a communist.

What Works: Christopher Nolan’s filmography alternates between high concept films that play with the cinematic form such as Tenet and Inception and more straightforward genre pieces like the Dark Knight trilogy. Oppenheimer combines both strains of Nolan’s body of work and it is a showcase of his strengths as a filmmaker and a storyteller. Like a lot of Nolan’s films, the movie is told out of sequence and leaps around the timeline but despite running three hours Oppenheimer has remarkable storytelling economy. The organization and pacing are very deliberate, drawing connections between the past and the present in a way that reveals larger themes of the title character’s life. The final stretch of the movie does this especially well, figuratively representing the principle of mutually assured destruction in the derailment of both J. Robert Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss’ careers. Oppenheimer was a complicated person and so is his legacy and the film digs into the nuances and eccentricities. The film addresses some of his personal failings but more critically the picture explores Oppenheimer’s responsibility for unleashing nuclear weapons upon the world. Oppenheimer was neither an evil genius nor a total innocent and the filmmakers don’t let him off the hook while dramatizing the evolution of his views. The movie has a few great performances, namely Cillian Murphy in the title role. Murphy conveys the man’s intelligence and arrogance but also his sense of guilt. Robert Downey Jr. is cast as Lewis Strauss and it’s especially nice to see Downey in a role worthy of his talents after being monopolized by the Marvel Cinematic Universe for so many years. Oppenheimer also uses sound particularly well. Christopher Nolan has been experimental with his audio mixes. This film employs some similar techniques but in a way that is purposeful and not overwhelming. The sound works with the images and the narrative structure, drawing connections and rendering audible the character’s anxieties.

What Doesn’t: Oppenheimer is a very talky film and it occasionally over explains the plot and the character motivations. However, the moviemaking is doing so much that the expository dialogue never bogs down the film. Some of the dialogue sequences in the early portion of Oppenheimer suffer from rushed pacing. Either due to cutting choices by the editors or line readings by the actors, the dialogue occasionally feels too compressed and doesn’t have enough space to breathe. This gets better over the course of the film.

Bottom Line: Oppenheimer uses a biographical story to examine broader themes about relationships, power, and responsibility. It’s a big and ambitious film but also an intelligent one with frightening implications.

Episode: #959 (July 30, 2023)