Director: Christopher Nolan
Unless I’ve missed it, I don’t think anyone has attempted a review of this so far, so I thought I’d start the ball rolling. I don’t have a massive amount to say about the film, but I’ll give you a brief run through of my thoughts.
The basic background to this is that it’s a biopic of J Robert Oppenheimer, the slightly eccentric individual who was in charge of the Manhattan Project. He had a bit of a moral crisis after his work led to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings (although I understand in real life his change or heart was maybe a bit more complex and ambiguous than is portrayed here), and then in the 50s he was blacklisted and victimised under the McCarthy communist witch-hunt stuff.
In the hands of a traditional, safe director it might have made a dull but worthy straightforward story. In the hands of Christopher Nolan, as expected, you get something a bit different. Opinions will vary (and it certainly seems to have gathered a few fans and ecstatic critics) but personally I didn’t think it quite worked.
At the heart of it, the reason is simple and easily stated. It’s boring. I know Nolan has his shortcomings, but I’ve always been happy to defend him to an extent. I think Dunkirk is his finest achievement, and in that he managed to convey a relatively straightforward story in a compelling and involving way, with his trademark overlapping timelines and orchestration of tension. He tries the same thing with Oppenheimer and (for me) it just doesn’t work: the story (condensed and simplified as it is) is much too sprawling to contain, and he loses track of the details and forgets to take his audience with him.
We get parallel timelines unfolding both before and after the Manhattan Project. It’s probably the storylines in the 50s I’m most dissatisfied with. There are lots of tense interviews in tense rooms with lots of tension… but Nolan seems to forget to tell you as the audience what we’re supposed to be tense about. He borrows liberally from the cinematic language of things like 12 Angry Men, but you don’t really know who the men are or why they’re angry. And it all seems to trivial in the end: for all intents and purposes it seems to boil down to a professional tiff with another scientist.
By comparison, all the stuff about the Manhattan Project, and the building of a secret, gated community in Los Alamos to build an atom bomb before the Nazis, is truly tense and really well done. It’s a fascinating story, and has all the moral ambiguity and scientific conflict stuff you need in a film. The bit when they actually come to test the bomb, is absolutely spine-tingling and perhaps the finest 10 minutes of cinema you will see this year.
Cillian Murphy is as terrific as you would expect as Oppenheimer himself. I thought at first he was trying to copy Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth (skinny, alien, big hat, beatific eyes…) but then you see what the real Oppenheimer looked like and you realise that’s who Bowie was channeling in the first place.
In the end I was left craving a 90 minute film with just the Los Alamos stuff, with the bomb testing as the climax and maybe a short coda years later covering his fall from grace. And even if it had to be a long film, I was reminded of Laurence of Arabia which managed to be long but still relatively simple and covering only the essential parts of our anti-hero’s life. Here, Nolan seems to want to eat his cake and have it: he has a massive cast of terrific actors (EVERYONE is in this, and I mean EVERYONE) and the freedom to do what he wants, but he just doesn’t know how to claw it back and create a simple, cinematic story.
For all those people who complain about muffled dialogue in Nolan films, you won’t find any respite here. The soundtrack absolutely booms with very few quiet moments, and I would say about 40% of the dialogue was incomprehensible to me. Not a problem with something like Dunkirk which relies more on movement and action, but Oppenheimer is one of his most talkiest films so muffled dialogue is simply unforgivable.
One last criticism: slow it down with the frantic cuts and jumps, Nolan. He’s starting to turn into Michael Bay where everything is cut super fast like a trailer. Take a look at Paul Thomas Anderson or even Kubrick to see how to just let a camera linger for a few minutes. (In the few instances where he DOES let the camera linger in Oppenheimer, it’s truly beautiful – it’s fantastically shot, we just don’t get a chance to stop and appreciate it).
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
I’m not really sure what this is like. I don’t know. The only that springs to mind is something like Tarkovsky or Bergman, where film becomes a kind of endurance test. If you likes P T Anderson’s The Master, you might like the aesthetic of this (vibrant 40s/50s colours and immaculate era styling), but that quality of style clashes with the constant cutting and pumping music.