Let’s talk about Oppenheimer.
Right, let’s try and do this review without mentioning that other movie that came out on this weekend. It’d be the first review to ever do it! Ok then, so history biopics have always been a thing and let’s be honest, they can be quite dull a lot of the time. I’ve sat through a lot of them at this point and so many can feel like history lectures by a teacher that’s just waiting for retirement. It’s really difficult to take some from history and make it interesting in the modern day when slower paces have to work even harder to grab people’s attention. But Christopher Nolan thinks he can do itwith one of the most controversial people in history and he thinks he can do with a three hour movie. Oh boy.
J. Robert Oppenheimer is the leading nuclear physicist of his generation. This means that even though he has had dealings with the Communist party, the American government invites him into their inner sanctum and tasks him with one job. Build a nuclear bomb that will end World War 2.
So with the man Oppenheimer, you get one of the world’s great moral questions. Is the man who invents the bomb the villain? We all know about what happens with the nuclear bomb and I don’t think it’s really a spoiler to say. Eventually, America drops a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and then another on Nagasaki. This then develops into the Cold War with Russia and USA all having the ability to trigger the end of the world thanks to these weapons which have devastating and long lasting power. And Oppenheimer was the man who invented the bomb, the man who the film states gave us the power to destroy ourselves. Of course, he wasn’t the only one trying to invent it and he isn’t the man who decided how to use it. So how much guilt should he have, and should he have it at all? It’s the question the film poses and it poses it well. Through the guilt of the character and lots of good dramatic scenes, it explores this question effectively but it doesn’t preach. While it makes it’s point, it’s happy for you to see what you see in the movie and make your own conclusion about it all.
There’s several big points of drama in the film. It’s told out of order, with a senate hearing for Strauss, one of Oppenheimer’s old bosses, being the framing device which allows to go into the past and explore different parts of the scientist’s life. You have that trial where it seems like Oppenheimer’s legacy might stop Strauss from joining the President’s Cabinet. Then you the flashback revealing quite why Oppenheimer might be helping screw Strauss, and then also the bulk of the movie which is Oppenheimer building the bomb. This is the best part. The film brings this sheer intensity in the race for the bomb you might not expect. We all know that the Nazis don’t end up building the nuclear bomb. But yet the film is able to build so much tension that they are going to unless Oppenheimer gets on with it right now! It’s all down to the sound design which just overwhelms scenes and makes standard dramatic scenes into something so much more.
But it all leads to one big moment. The trinity test, when they finally see if the nuclear bomb works. Or as the film mentions, if it ends up setting fire to the atmosphere and kills everyone on the planet. There was a, admittedly miniscule, chance of that happening. The movie does kind of handwave that away, it knows it can’t mine any drama out of that really as you can’t watch a film about Oppenheimer if he has already destroyed the world. But when the film gets to that sequence, oh my god. This is one of the best things I’ve ever seen. The tension building is brilliant but not because you think it might not work. You’re worried about what might happen if it does. The film has already blown your eardrums on a few occasions so what is it going to do with a nuclear blast? Combine that with the reputation of the director Christopher Nolan who doesn’t tend to do subtlety with his imagery and you know this is going to be terrifying. And boy is it. The way he does it is very surprising, but remains as terrifying as you expect. You really feel the explosion and it sells how devastating the nuclear bomb is more than anything else ever has done in cinema.
But the film is anchored by a lot of brilliant performances. Everyone knows who Cillian Murphy is, you’ve ever seen Peaky Blinders who have been overwhelmed by the amount of Peaky Blinders merchandise is out there. Or the fact that every bloke in his early 20s goes out wearing a flat cap and a waist coat now. But if you hadn’t realised he was a great actor, you’re going to. Murphy has made himself the frontrunner for the Oscars Best Actor award already, and in a year where he might not have to go because of the ongoing strikes, that’d probably be the best of both worlds for him. He brings everything to this role. The quiet self-assuredness that marks Oppenheimer out as special to begin with and then the slow unravelling of that as he’s definitely not sure about the project he is now working on. He is brilliant throughout and if anyone had any doubt that he can lead in movies, well here’s you being proven wrong. The supporting cast is also brilliant, though I’m going to note that the female characters do feel a bit underserved. Yes, Emily Blunt gets that one great scene, but that did feel a bit like something for the Oscar reel when they submit her for Best Supporting Actress.
So let’s talk about the length of this movie. It’s grabbed a lot of headlines because three hours is a long time for a movie and especially so for a period biopic. That’s just inviting you to have a nap in the cinema. Though I imagine having a nap during this movie and waking up during the nuclear bomb sequence would be an experience. And that bomb does point out a problem in the film’s pacing. For the most part, this film does well with it’s three hours. You do notice the time every so often, but it does fill it’s time well and there aren’t too many cuts you’d want to do. But still, it definitely could go down to two-and-a-half hours at least. But back to the bomb. The test comes at the end of the second act. As I’ve said, it is an incredible sequence. But when you clock on the film still has a bit to go, it’s a little disappointing. It’s as if you’re at the boxing, you’ve just watched the long awaited titanic bout between Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury, and then the announcer says there’s four more undercard matches to go. Those matches are still good, and you stick around for them. But it feels a bit underwhelming after the big main event.
Oppenheimer is a brilliant movie. Christopher Nolan really said ‘I’m going to make a three hour movie about nuclear physics’ and then made it something you’ll be glued to throughout. It’s a powerhouse of film making with Nolan using everything in his bag of tricks to swallow you up in the intensity and drama of Oppenheimer’s story. Add to that a brilliant starring performance from Cillian Murphy and you do have something absolutely incredible. Yes, I would have tried to juggle things around to have the nuclear bomb at the end of the movie. But that’s still a minor quibble for a film certain to be on my Top 10 at the end of the year.