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Biopic of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr, Gary Oldman, Casey Affleck, Florence Pugh, Benny Safdie, Michael Angarano, Josh Hartnett

Oppenheimer poster

Hollywood loves the biopic, probably because it's a genre that combines name recognition with potential awards glory. But very few biopics are worthwhile, and most leave you wishing you had just watched a 50-minute PBS or BBC documentary rather than a bloated feature film. The few worthwhile biopics tend to hone in on a specific period of their subject's life. Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer hones in on two periods of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer's life, and it often feels like two different movies edited together. One is a riveting wartime thriller, the other a rather flat post-war courtroom drama. If we can split the atom, maybe some intrepid amateur editor will at some point in the future split Nolan's movie in two and extract a very good 90 minute movie from its current three hours.

Taking its cues from one of the few great biopics – Milos Forman's AmadeusOppenheimer gives us its own version of Mozart vs Salieri. The Mozart figure is of course Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy in his biggest role to date. Pitted against him is Robert Downey Jr's Salie…, sorry, Lewis Strauss. In the film's less engaging timeline it's 1954 and Strauss is head of the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Oppenheimer finds himself the subject of a kangaroo court determined to expose him as a communist and strip him of his security clearance. We're told Strauss has it in for Oppenheimer, but we're never really shown why this might be. This is a recurring problem throughout Nolan's film. In its race to pack in as much information as possible in its three hours we're told a lot of things about a lot of people, but shown very little to back up such statements.

Oppenheimer review

The far more exciting portion of Oppenheimer is devoted to the race to develop the atom bomb before the Nazis. I have a lot of issues with Nolan's filmmaking but this sort of ticking clock narrative is something he does better than most. It's made clear that when Oppenheimer and his fellow boffins embarked down this path they had no idea what the results might be. There's a chance that setting off an atom bomb might cause a chain reaction that would essentially destroy the world. It's a near zero chance mind, but as one character remarks, "Zero would be nice."

What's impressive about how Nolan constructs this sequence is that by the simple fact that we're sitting in a cinema watching Oppenheimer, we know the world wasn't destroyed when that key button was pushed, yet it's incredibly tense regardless. Nolan puts us in the shoes of the men about to make that potentially fatal call, and our own hindsight goes out the window. Those scientists knew there was a chance, however small, that it could all go horribly wrong, and their apprehension is palpable.

Nolan's two main weapons in selling this idea are Murphy's eyes, two of the most expressive in modern cinema. Brash at first in his younger days, Oppenheimer becomes more insular and taciturn as the film progresses and the fate of the world weighs down on his scrawny shoulders. But Murphy's eyes tell us just what he's going through. As the film progresses and Oppenheimer becomes more distraught and guilt-ridden, Murphy's eyes take on the appearance of a pair of ghostly children peering out the windows of a crumbling Edwardian home. When Oppenheimer receives some bad personal news and breaks down, you get the feeling it's a relief of sorts, a distraction from his role in the potential destruction of the world.

Supporting characters are far less enriched however. It's easy to mock Nolan's ongoing struggle to write a compelling woman but the two female figures here – Oppenheimer's wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) and Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), a young communist he has an affair with – are as bad as any he's written. Kitty is particularly puzzling, portrayed as a weird mix of sozzled-era Liz Taylor and Lady Macbeth, and Blunt appears to be begging for some sort of clear direction throughout. Tatlock seems to exist merely to get some steaminess into the drama. In one of the unfortunate cues Nolan takes from '90s Oliver Stone here, Kitty imagines a naked Tatlock straddling her husband as he's being grilled by McCarthyites. It's the cringiest thing I've seen in some time.

Oppenheimer review

Nolan likes to dial things up, and the cringe factor is no exception here. The by now groan-worthy biopic trope of making casual reference to something that will become relevant at a later stage is employed several times here: "My favourite spot to get away…Los Alamos," "And that man was…John F. Kennedy" etc. At one point Oppenheimer is asked to translate a sanskrit copy of the Bhagavad-Gita, and it just happens to randomly open on the page bearing the "destroyer of worlds" passage.

The cringe extends to some of the supporting performances. To balance some great turns – Matt Damon's Leslie Groves, Josh Hartnett's Ernest Lawrence, Downey Jr's Strauss – we get Gary Oldman hamming it up as Harry Truman and Kenneth Branagh and Benny Safdie butchering European accents. In this age where Hollywood purports to be so concerned with representation, why are we still getting Anglophone actors delivering Dr. Strangelove caricatures of continental Europeans?

Much of the marketing around Oppenheimer has focussed on its use of the 65mm IMAX format and Nolan recreating the Trinity test explosion without the use of digital effects. Considering the bulk of the movie consists of close-ups of blokes talking, it's hard to argue that this is a movie that needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible (I can't believe this is bumping the latest Mission: Impossible from IMAX screens). "I bet that explosion is something else though, right?" you might ask. Well, it's pretty underwhelming. It can't hold a candle to the nuclear blast from the incredible eighth episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, and I've seen better explosions on TJ Hooker.

Oppenheimer review

A common complaint directed at recent Nolan films has been the inability to clearly hear dialogue, given his penchant for drowning it out with screeching scores. That's thankfully not an issue here. Given how heavily Nolan relies on dialogue to tell this story, I don't think even he would have risked pissing off audiences once again in this manner. But the score, by Ludwig Göransson, is nevertheless intrusive, especially in the 1954 portion. Though this segment is essentially an intimate courtroom drama, the composer scores it as though he's still watching the Los Alamos portion. The effect is like watching an episode of Matlock while blaring Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring through your speakers.

Perhaps Oppenheimer's biggest flaw is how little insight it gives us into the man himself. All I knew about Oppenheimer beforehand was that he was the key figure in developing the atom bomb and that he felt pretty bad about this for the rest of his life. Having watched the movie I still don't really know anything more about the man.

 is on UK/ROI VOD from November 22nd.

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