Review – Oppenheimer

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Overview

Synopsis With the outset of the Second World War, America's most brilliant physicist is recruited to help build a bomb that could end the war in the hands of whoever has access to it.

Length 3 hours

Release Date July 21, 2023

 

Rating R

Distribution Universal Pictures

Directing Christopher Nolan

Writing Christopher Nolan. Based on American Prometheus by Kai Bird Martin J. Sherwin

Composition Ludwig Göransson

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

The life of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a curious but fascinating muse for the next project of director Christopher Nolan. Given his prior success in Inception and The Dark Knight Trilogy, he continues to enjoy one of the most impressive blank checks in Hollywood history, with a nearly endless series of opportunities to tell whatever story he wants, including Interstellar, Dunkirk, Tenet, and now Oppenheimer.

The latter is particularly fascinating given how scaled back of a story it is from his prior few films, which were excellent and enormous homages to 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Thin Red Line, and James Bond. Following his creative breakup with Warner Bros., Nolan has taken a smaller project to Universal Pictures and done his first straight drama since The Prestige in 2006. But his choice of subject matter carries with it the same bleakness and buried existential angst that drives all of his films and has turned him into the most popular auteur in the world.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Several stressful and intense sequences throughout the film, with depictions of brutal and loud explosions, startling loud noises, and hallucinations. A character steps on the ashen body of a nuclear bomb victim.
Language/Crude Humor: Some severe language throughout the movie including f***.
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters drink and smoke heavily throughout the film.
Sexual Content: A brief sex scene with full-frontal female nudity, and several subsequent scenes of partial nudity.
Spiritual Content: Characters briefly discuss God. Most of the characters are implicitly Jewish, and a character reads briefly from the Hindu scriptures.
Other Negative Content: Depictions of suicide, death, and anti-semitism.
Positive Content: Themes of life, forgiveness, penance, and truth.

Review

The name “Oppenheimer” has become mostly associated with the atomic bomb, as the famous physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer is almost entirely known today as the leader of the Manhattan Project. Those who are familiar with his name can probably tell you he is famous for the quote “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” and see him as a figure defined by hubris and scientific arrogance. He is the epitome of what modern Christians would call “scientism”, a practice of dangerously reducing all aspects of life down to a science without regard to morality or wisdom, topics that C.S. Lewis prominently discusses in his books Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength.

Nolan very much set out to explore this story of hubris and wisdom by adapting the 2005 biography American Prometheus into a dense political drama and character study exploring the rise and fall of one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, and how his creation would consume and destroy him and everything he stands for. The movie generally assumes that audiences are coming into the theater with a modicum of knowledge about the history, particularly an understanding of just how disruptive the atomic bombings in Japan were and how much they threatened the world for the duration of the Cold War with the possibility of thermo-nuclear war from 1945 to 1991.

The story is told somewhat out-of-order with the conceit that the majority of the characterization is totally fictionalized. Nolan has said in multiple interviews the movie’s black-and-white scenes are meant to be interpreted as wholly accurate, while colored scenes are subjective. This gives the film a great deal of speculative breathing room to fill in real-life gaps in the story, jumping between moments knowing that the audience already understands the real-life Oppenheimer succeeded at his mission.

From the outset of the story, we meet the young Oppenheimer as he is in the midst of ascending to the heights of the scientific world. He has already earned his doctorate at the outset of the story, running in scientific circles with brilliant physicists like Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg. After taking his knowledge back from Europe and using it to start the U.S.’s first quantum physics department at Berkley, he is approached on the eve of World War II to help the government build a theoretical atomic weapon to use against the Nazis and end the brutal war effort before the enemy succeeds first.

This process should go smoothly but regularly butts up against the reality of Oppenheimer’s numerous skeletons in his closet. He is an open womanizer who cheats on his wife, a “New Deal Democrat” with sympathies to card-carrying communists and financial connections to Spanish anti-fascist groups, an idealist with different ideas on leadership to his military colleagues, and an egotist of the highest order with the charisma to convince others to sway to his side, even himself as one character notes. He is brilliant but irresponsible and impulsive, living a confused life while coasting by on his genius and sizable accomplishments.

Even with the film’s eventual ending being telegraphed from the very beginning, the journey to those final moments is riveting and stressful. Ludwig Göransson’s continuous and oppressive soundtrack cakes the film in a layer of stress from the outset and Nolan’s story manages to draw out every moment of drama and suspense possible from a story where the endpoint is already obvious.

There is a lot of handwringing in the film about issues like McCarthyism and communist paranoia, with the central character proving a mess from the outset and being clearly dragged through the mud throughout as other characters constantly test his loyalties and claim that he is acting as a spy for the Soviet Union. But this is very much in service to the movie’s greater question of penance and forgiveness.

By the time we get the famous “Oppenheimer moment” of his regret and full realization of what he has done, we have already seen this character defend every step he has taken up to this point. The film’s question, asked by the character himself, is whether the sins of the past can possibly be forgiven.

Oppenheimer is a non-religious Jewish man, an identity the film repeatedly notes as it regularly comments on how the majority of physicists and academics of this time are Jewish, and notes how the rise of Nazism has scattered the Jewish scientistic community across the world. Oppenheimer is disinterested in spirituality outside of its historical value, with him reading the Hindu Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit as he makes love to his first wife. The film has no frame of reference for spiritual renewal or redemption, thus leaving the very existential question of absolution one that it wants to answer from a secular standpoint.

Oppenheimer ends up being a potent story of both wrongful oppression and guilt, with its main character struggling with the question of whether it is possible at all for a person to be forgiven for the sins of creating a deadly weapon that kills thousands of people or for having a messy past that cannot be shaken. The movie offers few answers to the query, leaving audiences with one of the most somber downer endings in recent blockbuster filmmaking. However, it leaves the audience to answer Oppenheimer’s question for him, letting us observe the complex moral greyness of his life and the question of if any penance can truly absolve his sins.

Positives

+ Stressful and riveting Scripture and stakes
+ Excellently executed story
+ Potent themes and mediations

Negatives

- Bleak tone for a summer blockbuster

The Bottom Line

Oppenheimer stands as one of the most complex character studies and darkest dramas to come out of Christopher Nolan's career, telling a powerful story about the cost of unchecked brilliance and irresponsibility.

 

9

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

2 Comments

  1. Jess Holmes on July 21, 2023 at 11:00 am

    This is a huge relief to read. I had heard some people who were excited about it hated it. It’s supposed to be a sober tale, of course. I appreciate your analysis and look forward to going to see the movie.

  2. BG on July 20, 2023 at 4:35 pm

    Thanks for your review of Oppenheimer. I also read the PluggedIn review which made the sexual content seem much more of a negative point. Did you find it didn’t impact your viewing? It’s a first for Nolan and makes me uncomfortable watching it.

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