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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Oppenheimer (2023)

Unless you’ve been living in a musky old cave banging rocks together, you’d at least be a tiny bit familiar with the free marketing frenzy that Barbenheimer has caused - a meme that spread like wildfire as a result of the same-day release for two of the most hotly anticipated films by two filmmakers who are highly lauded by filmmakers, critics and audiences alike. Thankfully, it’s not a competition between the two. What we are getting is an unprecedented cinematic event that has driven movie fans of all shapes, colours and sizes out in droves to see them. Both titles are not only scoring big with critics but audiences as well. Regardless of the doubleheader experience of seeing both on the same day, whether you choose to watch Barbie first or Oppenheimer, is that both films deserve to stand on their own as uniquely moving and challenging experiences (yup, Barbie is not only a fun popcorn movie, but thought-provoking as well). And regardless of them being released on the same day, they will be remembered and revered as individual entities instead of just the strange double-header that took the movie-going world by storm.

I’ve already gone into detail about why Barbie (review here) ruled so hard for me, so let’s focus on the next feather in Christopher Nolan’s cap, a work that might just be his masterpiece - an intimate character study of epic proportions, one that is as densely complex as its subject as well as the subject he himself obsessed over. Told in typical Nolan fashion, Oppenheimer follows a non-linear timeline, splitting perspective up into two distinct entities. Number 1, is titled Fission. This is the colour portion of the film. Number 2, is Fusion. This is the black-and-white portion of the film. These visually distinctive identities in Oppenheimer aren’t just to play with the timeline in Oppenheimer’s journey, but to establish perspective. Fission is from the perspective of Robert J. Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), while Fusion is from the perspective of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). Fission is the splitting and pulling apart of atoms to create smaller atoms, so in this portion of the film, we follow Oppenheimer’s journey that chronicles important chapters from his life that would culminate his eventual legacy - with its primary focus on the race to beat the Nazis at birthing the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, followed by the eventual hearings intended to deny him his security clearance years later amid suspicions of him being a communist. Fusion is well, the combination and fusing of atoms to create a new, bigger atom that is potentially more powerful. This mostly takes place after everything we see Oppenheimer experience and focuses on the senate confirmation hearing for Lewis Strauss' nomination to be secretary of commerce. These two halves aren’t told in a linear fashion either, but jump around to various flashbacks, ones that contradict each of their own perceptions of events that create a jumbled puzzle that eventually clicks into place when the subjective and objective perspectives of its protagonist and antagonist fall into place.

Regardless of how you feel about Robert J. Oppenheimer and the legacy he left on the world, there’s no denying he is a deeply complex man. He not only spearheaded the project that would immediately end WWII, but changed the world as we know it, birthing the atomic age which, although intended and envisioned as an age of unprecedented peace, sparked constant fear and needless deterrents that could possibly spark a chain reaction that would end the world entirely. It’s important to note that Christopher Nolan wrote the film in first person, from the point of view of Oppenheimer, something that is completely unheard of in a screenplay. Once you are aware of this, it makes the experience of unpacking the spiraling morals and cascading arches of Oppenheimer to be as subjective as the film’s visual and structural identity. In the Fission portions of the film (Oppenheimer’s perspective), we experience just that: a subjective viewpoint that has him trying to not only convince himself but us as well, that this is what it’s meant to be and why it’s supposed to be that way. It shows just how naive he was, showing his muddied morals while trying to deliver what is inevitably expected of him. I find it odd that people assume the film sides with Oppenheimer on his mission, but the film constantly has characters challenging, strengthening or completely opposing his actions. And what we get are results and answers from the man that range from logical to irrational: the actions of a man obsessed with finding answers, digging deeper to not only strengthen his legacy but to change the world forever. For better or for worse. That is why his rivalry with Strauss is also so compelling within the film, and through Strauss’ perspective in the black-and-white Fusion portion of the film, we see a man who sees Oppenheimer from outside Oppenheimer’s point of view. A man that can be arrogant and irrational - something missing from his own perspective.

“Did you think that if you let them tar and feather you, the world will forgive you? They won’t”.

Nolan doesn’t look to justify, excuse or even forgive Oppenheimer for what he did to the world - playing his part in the destructive power that would forever change humanity’s trajectory, one that marches firmly towards certain death. But Nolan looks to peer into the mind of the man and wrestle with the conflicting emotions and moral dilemmas he encountered every day before and after the results of The Manhattan Project. It’s an effective, towering achievement of a biopic because it genuinely tries to fathom the actions of all those involved. Just why do we need to drop the bomb? Just why do we need to restrict nuclear arms? Oppenheimer famously felt major regret following the use of the bomb to end WWII, and as said before, Nolan isn’t looking to justify or forgive him, but to merely understand the journey with which he took to get there. And it’s with this blinding naivety for a better world that lets Oppenheimer grow into this devastating, ungodly beast of a character study, allowing for the meaning behind both Fission and Fusion chapters to speak so clearly to one another: We thought we were saving the world, but we were in fact, ending it.

Nolan’s female characters often feel like sidelined characters that either are tools of exposition or are damaged one-dimensional characters as a means to drive the protagonist’s actions going forward. Initially, I felt that way with the characters of Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), his first love interest, and then his eventual wife Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt). Tatlock initially felt like a mere blip to draw out an iconic quote out from Oppenheimer (“I am become death, destroyer of worlds”) and complicate his personal life. Their relationship is shown to be very one-sided as Tatlock is a woman constantly shown in distress, irrational and sour towards Oppenheimer - never providing a sufficient explanation as to why she felt this way. But once you understand the subjective, therefore not entirely reliable point of view of its protagonist, especially after learning that the script was written in first person, then these gripes turn into mechanics that make its structure and intention through character in particular, work quite well, even if it is unintentional. As I experienced it upon my second viewing, the absence and lack of explanation for Tadlock’s behavior makes sense because Oppenheimer himself refuses to scratch the surface, to understand why she’s feeling this way because he’s so in his own head pursuing his own ambitions and obsessions that he doesn't really care about how she feels. It’s with Kitty’s character and approach, especially in the hearings portion of the film, where we see the deafening volume in Oppenheimer’s naivety and desire to be forgiven. The book with which Oppenheimer is adapted from, American Prometheus, described her as a woman who only did big talk, no small talk. And it’s with her opposing feelings of frustration and loyalty to Oppenheimer that expose his unconscious need to be tarred and feathered in hopes of it absolving him of the blood that stains his hands. “Did you think that if you let them tar and feather you, the world will forgive you? They won’t”.

The moral dilemmas with which Oppenheimer faced allow for the film’s remarkable structure to drive these conflicting dips and curves in his eventual real-life character arc to be that much more fascinating. It’s not just a drama, but twists and turns into a thriller, one set against the clock of his own morality, with Strauss proving to be a unique combination of historical objective accounts of the man, as well as his own subjective spin steeped in grudges and resentment. Nolan is obsessed with non-linear structures, ones that make you step back and look at things from different angles as you come back for more. Sometimes he provides too many answers, but Nolan works best when there is minimal handholding in the journey he takes us on - providing more speculation and questions than definitive answers (Memento and even Inception’s spinning top at the end). Films like Memento, The Prestige and Dunkirk in particular, are masterful displays of his ability to jumble everything up, only to have them slotting in tandem to complete the puzzle, all while making it just challenging enough for audiences to eventually piece together themselves. This is where editor Jennifer Lame’s job comes in. Now her second collaboration with Nolan after Tenet, Lame is able to put together what Nolan sees in his head, and the precision with which she does it is remarkable. Despite being three hours long, Oppenheimer rarely slows down. It’s reminiscent of Dunkirk, creating a blinding pace that never feels rushed and although it’s essentially a three-hour dialogue-heavy biopic, never feels tedious or boring for one moment. She is able to connect points in space and time that allow Oppenheimer and Strauss’s perspectives to wrestle with one another, showing us the complexities of both men as Nolan looks to further understand these two as they see themselves and each other, and not necessarily how we already know them to be. It feels like a combination of chess and boxing, balancing moments of thorough analysis through character and plot followed by relentless bouts of external and internal conflict that spread across each other's perspective and place in time which surrounds the film's centerpiece: The Trinity Test, which is a flawless exercise in practical effects, breathtaking cinematography, unbearable tension and highly inventive sound design that opts to go against the expectations you’d have for a scene about a bomb blowing up. It’s one of the most jaw-dropping set pieces I have ever seen on film. Both are staggeringly beautiful and completely terrifying.

Not only does the film carry on for an additional hour and a bit after this climactic moment, but Lame’s editing also manages to keep the pace ever-growing as it hurdles towards the film’s finale, a race against the clock of Robert J. Oppenheimer’s morality and even immortality - a point in time forever remembered as a footnote in our eventual destruction. It's seamless work from not only the writing (it really is Nolan’s most inspired work) but editing as well, making it the most impressively edited film of the year, dominated by complete and total purpose to blend character and plot together effectively. Like Lame’s pace in the edit, Composer Ludwig Göransson (his second collab with Nolan following Tenet) matches that blistering pace. It’s not just a relentless barrage of intense strings (it has lots of that), but a highly nuanced character unto itself. Having written pieces while Nolan and co. were away shooting, Göransson has stated that Cillian Murphy’s performance changed the whole gameplan for him. Not only did he have to match the presence of his perfectly calibrated performance, but he had to compliment and play as the internal music constantly buzzing in the man’s head and soul. Layers upon layers of various instruments, primarily strings, allowed him to eventually match the same complexities of the character’s ever-changing perspective and feelings. It’s the best score of the year, and you best believe Göransson will be taking home the Oscar for this. An astonishing achievement in both composition and intent that pairs perfectly with the pace of the film’s edit, sound design, performance and imagery.

In such a grand story, the text suggests an even grander sense of intimacy, and with Cillian Murphy, he manages to do so, pulling the text from off the page and carrying it all on his shoulders. The cast has routinely said that Murphy had the toughest job here, and it's easy to see why. Murphy is absolutely spellbinding as the controversial figure of Oppenheimer, and with the script written from his perspective, it makes the task even more daunting as he is forced to sacrifice himself entirely to the character. From naïve to curious, to arrogant, to certain, to fearful, to remorseful. The gamut is ever-widening, going as far as evolving with the character's body language in different phases in his life that are so subtle but so important in immersing himself so deeply within Oppenheimer's skin. Murphy has simply never been better, exhibiting a specific level of nuance we have yet to see in a Nolan film. It’s without question the best performance in a Nolan film (yup, even more so than Ledger in the Dark Knight). Pair that with Hoyt van Hoytema’s breathtaking cinematography that, although shot on the glorious, larger IMAX film stock (with black and white IMAX film stock invented for this film), still manages to convey that vital sense of intimacy, one that allows us to toil in the existential crisis Robert J. Oppenheimer finds himself constantly tackling.

It’s not just Murphy who shines, but that of his cast mates as well. As mentioned before, he does the hard yards, but it’s all for nothing if his cast mates can’t perfectly compliment his character’s internal and external journey. It’s a stacked ensemble featuring Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Benny Safdie, Josh Hartnett, Tom Conti, Kenneth Branagh, Jason Clarke, Rami Malek, Jack Quaid, David Dastmalchian, David Krumholtz, Alex Wolff, and on and on and on, as well as two surprising cast inclusions that of course, manage to knock it out the park. But it’s with Robert Downey Jr. who is a particularly inspired addition. Having played the good guy for most of his career as well as famously being anchored to the MCU as Tony Stark, Downey Jr. plays the nemesis to Oppenheimer, a rivalry akin to Salieri and Mozart in the wonderful Amadeus (1984) (a film with which Nolan urged both Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. to revisit). While Fission makes up most of the film’s body, pulling and splitting Oppenheimer’s psyche as he goes on a winding road of revelations and arcs both beneficial and detrimental to his own legacy, Fusion offers the outsider’s perspective of the man after the war, a period with which he seemingly embraced being the father of the atomic bomb whilst also trying to be the face of reform. In a film where Murphy dominates most of the screen time, it’s in this section where Downey Jr. takes the spotlight. Downey Jr. is a great improvisational actor. Although Oppenheimer's tight outlines limit and eliminate his instinct to play as much as you’d expect, he has never appeared more free. A fine actor at the very top of his game, relishing the opportunity to play as the key opposing force that allows it all to mesh and bind to one another in order to create something truly great.

Oppenheimer is the feel-bad movie of the summer. It’s a harrowing account of events that continues to have its results reverberate into our present and future. With Nolan’s unique screenplay centered around dueling, subjective first-person perspectives, we are offered a chance to both understand and skewer both the innovations and sins of such a mythical figure. It’s a highly intimate, moving, and challenging piece of work that has Nolan delivering his masterpiece. It may not be the definitive movie biopic, but you can safely place it up there with the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Malcolm X, etc. as some of the greatest and most radically inventive biopics we have seen to date. See it on the biggest screen possible and give Cillian Murphy every damn award there is.

Where you can watch it: In Theatres (Worldwide).

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