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Oppenheimer

Year: 2023
Production Co: Syncopy
Studio: Universal
Director: Chris Nolan
Producer: Emma Thomas/Charles Roven/Chris Nolan
Writer: Chris Nolan
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr, Matt Damon, Alden Ehrenreich, Jason Clarke, Macon Blair, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Conti, David Krumholtz, Josh Hartnett, Alex Wolff, Michael Angarano, Florence Pugh, Matthew Modine, Dane DeHaan, Jack Quaid, Benny Safdie, Rami Malek, Olivia Thirlby, Casey Affleck, James Remar, Gary Oldman

I was reminded too much of House of Cards while I watched this movie, and not in a good way. Because of the way the script of that show used political jargon and constant metaphor and the actors spoke in clipped tones to relate to each other, it had a propensity for characters whose presence and relation to the story never made sense.

I never figured out who certain people were or what they were doing there, however obvious their presence and bearing made it that they were crucial to the plot.

Chris Nolan has never made concessions to his audience, expecting you to be smart enough to keep up, but this was the first film of his that took that creative approach too far.

So much of what was said was buried under layers of intimation and narrative shorthand, all of it delivered at breakneck pace that threatened to leave you behind at every turn.

After watching Oppenheimer I couldn't tell you who at least half the characters were or what they had to do with the titular father of the atomic bomb project.

That's a particularly fatal flaw here because, out of all Nolan's movies, this is the first one sine his breakout indie thriller Following I'm not in the least inclined to revisit.

If you're in an uncharitable mood you could easily dismiss it as three hours of people talking – a supremely ironic quality considering Nolan's stance as one of the few directors left who's uniquely at home on the big screen.

The bomb test sequence is undoubtedly well executed (but even it has a curiously closed-in feel, with no shots of the entire Los Alamos valley that show the sheer size of the detonation), but it comes at three quarters of the way through and isn't in any way the climax of the plot. For all the talk of IMAX, 70mm stock and big screens, everything else here could have been made for TV.

I never thought I'd say it about a Chris Nolan film, but the trailer has the most exciting bits, and aside from the bomb test (which was never going to be shown in any marketing) even they're not very interesting – the most visually exciting thing is that long shot of the firing range lights coming on around the tower.

It depicts the fever dream visions of atoms and waveforms forming and coalescing in space Oppenheimer has during sleepless nights while studying at Cambridge, but they're not a patch on audacious visual ideas like the tesseract from Interstellar or Paris folding over on itself from Inception.

And once again, in what might be the most frustrating element of the whole enterprise, Nolan's not only made a movie comprised of little except people dumping rushed exposition for three hours solid, he's again (as seems to be his wont) presided over a terrible sound mix where you miss every third or fourth word in the talkier, Aaron Sorkin-esque scenes and lose even more of what's happening.

At one point Casey Affleck shows up in just a single scene where he talks innocuously about national security but who apparently has brutal methods to dispense with enemies of the military industrial complex. He comes into the story, says a bunch of stuff that doesn't amount to much, leaves and is never mentioned again.

Narratively Oppenheimer starts out like Inception, jumping back and forth between levels of Oppenheimer's (Cillian Murphy) life. First we see him in what looks like an official enquiry, being cross-examined by a panel of adversarial men about his politics.

It's the deposition he was forced to give when he famously changed his views on atomic weapons after the bomb was used and the authorities wanted to drum him out of power during the anti-red scare.

Then we see him rushing to and fro between classes while at Cambridge, having nightmares of the microscale universe, something seeming to be calling to him from beyond.

After meeting and working with some of the greatest scientific minds in Europe like Niels Bohr (Kenneth Brannagh, again... along with Murphy, Nolan's casting is getting boring) and Werner Heisenberg, Oppenheimer comes back to America with a new appreciation for quantum mechanics, the theory of which will lead directly to the nuclear age.

While teaching at Berkeley university and trying to get traction about his new ideas, the US army – represented by Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) – approaches Oppenheimer and recruits him to build the ultimate weapon, one they believe Hitler is already developing.

Horrified at what the Nazis are doing to his people, Oppenheimer agrees, founding and populating a town they call Los Alamos out of the dusty valleys of the New Mexican desert and bringing the best and brightest minds from the American science community in to help bring the bomb to fruition.

But the whole time that's going on, Oppenheimer (as we see through varying levels of flashbacks) is dogged by his political affiliation. Friends and associates are avowed unionists, sometimes outright communists, and his brushes with their activities will haunt him in years to come.

There's also an affair with Jean (Florence Pugh), and it's not terribly clear whether it's still going on while he marries and has kids with his wife, biologist and former Communist party member Kitty (Emily Blunt).

There's also Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr), chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and a man who it seems just wants to breathe the same air as famous scientists like Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), who works in Oppenheimer's circles but has been mostly put out to pasture at Princeton.

While Strauss seems to champion Oppenheimer's rise the entire way through, we follow the subplot of him and his staff preparing for his upcoming election to be a senator, all in black and white to denote its position in time after the rest of the story has played out.

It's only near the end that Strauss' true mission is revealed, and it renders the whole story even more inert. Where you think it's the story of the formation of the atomic bomb, it's just a story about petty jealousies and political infighting.

Like other minor characters, it's confusing what Strauss is even about – even before the final betrayal. And like Casey Affleck's contribution, the character who makes the pivotal blow in Strauss' subplot (played by Rami Malek), had only been in one other scene and I had no idea who he was the whole way through.

More serious than problems with the plotting and characters however are those with the visual approach, especially from a director we equate with such unshakeable talent with visuals.

The first problem is that there's no cohesive visual language. Most of the way through there's a workaday, televisual, point-and-shoot style that (it has to be said) gets quite boring at times.

Then, in the middle of all that, Nolan suddenly pulls a weird daydream sequence where Kitty, sitting near Oppenheimer at his hearing, imagines him naked with his now-dead lover Jean astride him, her eyes staring straight at Kitty as if challenging her to do something about it while the pair have sex.

The bigger problem still might be similar to what hobbled the movie they made out of the development of Tetris (Tetris), where there just wasn't any drama.

The race to develop the bomb before the Nazis did was certainly urgent, but the day to day effort on the ground in Los Alamos involved a lot of physics theory, construction and arguing, none of which lend themselves to cinematic set pieces.

The only real drama in the whole thing is a series of vague background tensions, one because of the fear that an atomic explosion might cause a chain reaction that never stops and destroys the whole atmosphere, the rest the enemies in his personal and political lives trying to bring Oppenheimer down.

All of which is only really expressible by people talking – if you expect a story about nuclear bombs you're going to be disappointed, probably bored stiff.

And then, in the midst of all that drabness, there's a single line of razor-sharp feminist awareness as good as you've ever heard in a movie.

Oppenheimer's wife Kitty has already expressed fears that she's going to go from being a scientist to a housewife, and when he comes home one day and their young son is crying in his room upstairs, Oppenheimer asks 'shouldn't you go to him?'

Obviously drunk and bored out of her mind, Kitty answers snidely 'I've been going to him all fucking day'.

She's already been stripped of an important part of her identity, so why shouldn't she be resentful? Instead of a scientist she's now just a caregiver like she feared, and even when her husband is finally home and can relieve her, he intimates that she should continue doing it because that's her lot in life, his job much more important for him to stoop to mere parenting.

It's the most perfectly pitched line in the movie, but when that's the most interesting thing in a movie about inventing the nuclear bomb, sorry Chris, but you've missed the mark.

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