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REVIEW – “Oppenheimer”: Grand Cinematic Spectacle Flashbangs to Dry College Lecture

L to R: Matt Damon is Leslie Groves and Cillian Murphy is J. Robert Oppenheimer in OPPENHEIMER, written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan. Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

Whatever British-born writer/director Christopher Nolan is trying to accomplish in about any of his films might not ever be considered mediocre or abysmal. At worst, any manner of heavy mindedness in his scripts will crash down like a bowling ball through plywood in a construction zone. No sensible filmmaker would let it go so far at the risk of appearing overwhelmed and unhinged. On his twelfth feature, Oppenheimer, Nolan does show he can still maintain a fair composure at his least controlled. But the result is still a mixed bag, lasting long with an excess in detail. Far too long for its own good his need to cover every side of the story nearly derailing what all’s working to his advantage. 

At baseline, the thrill is quite prevalent for Nolan (Tenet) to craft the definitive biography of the famed architect of nuclear warfare, J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy). Someone had to, if only to further immortalize the historical course of scientific America. Though, to navigate his life story; his motivation in the creation of the first atomic bomb at the height of WWII, his love life, political pursuits, and possible communist ties comes at the price of firmer pacing. As these threads intertwine atop each other, coupled by a highly cerebral mindset which I’m certain Nolan takes astute pride in, buckles and cracks develop. Without warning, its best ideas are weighed down by the innate desire to make good on any details that are disastrously overlooked. 

The man’s an enigma whose critical thinking fractures when faced with an equally broken moral ambiguity, and the need to grow a spine and act. This applies all too inherently in each stage of his venture – his early beginnings as a nameless face in the crowd of east coast physics. Headlining a legion of talented specialists to assist in the bomb’s R&D phase under the eye of Colonel Groves (Matt Damon). Shepherding the Manhattan Project, via a laboratory and adjacent town in the hills of Los Alamos, NM. Exercising his goal to take an unofficial seat in government. Being a capable family leader for wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), despite an affair with sympathizer Jean (Florence Pugh). And, head-on, facing the mad glory and scrutiny accompanying the make-or-break Trinity Test. There’s a firm sense of accomplishment when attempting to beat the Germans to the quick in one war, the Soviets in another. Mild dread when facing the physical and social aftermaths. And heightening tension as ally-turned-enemy Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr) looks to knock Oppy off his lofty pedestal and face his hubris. 

Nolan does a fair job building up Oppenheimer as a steady character piece, an intrinsic study of the duality between sharp mind and blotted ego. One third historical biopic, the next a dry college lecture, the last a tense government thriller with notes of JFK. His script amounts to a seven-course turkey dinner for the scholarly set, with all the fixings and an open bar on hand. It never stops to catch one’s breath, rushing through establishing all the players before the marquee event, and then hitting a wall soon after. The tryptophan hits hard, and the momentum slows to a winding crawl before this feast concludes. Perhaps it’s not on purpose how Nolan brushes past the root of Oppy’s psyche, only to drone on with factual analytics and finger-pointing in the final hour, aiming for the present purview instead of building up a captivating backstory. 

That is exactly where and how Oppenheimer loses me, lengthy statements with the temperament of a college physics course. With Murphy at the podium, it is astute but no less out of focus. His performance is destined to leave one spellbound, then groggy, playing the Lawful Neutral card with utmost charm and caution. He’s an easy guy to root for, though not by much with Nolan having no sharp vision on how to build up his protagonist into a confident Machiavellian type.  

His peers, to my surprise, are written way better, doing more to move the plot along. Blunt is a steady rock, her spousal fury and support eagerly blasting Murphy on his soft shoeing. Downey, meanwhile, makes for a spot-on foil for Oppy, though a tad understated and methodical in preparing his vengeance. Damon’s voice of reason cuts through a power washer, incinerating all doubt, but it’s no Sonny Vaccaro. And a larger ensemble, headlined by David Krumholtz’s Dr. Rabi, Kenneth Branagh’s Neils Bohr, Rami Malek’s David Hill and a prevalently staunch Josh Hartnett as Oppy’s closest friend Ernest Lawrence, fill those gaps in securing an accurate historical reflection.  

Multiple familiar names lending a hand can often equate to a Broadway-esque flair. But nothing can hide the level of tedium and improper framing Nolan must balance against his army of performers. Too many to mention here, with no part a small one, all adding a unique anecdote or two, like a Greek chorus arguing who to grant solos. Or like a mad rabble in need of realignment; take out several figures, trim out 40 minutes and that problem might be solved. It won’t completely remedy the issue with Oppy as a formidable anti-hero, consumed by his work, conflicted by his moral high ground. Neither really make their voice as heard as his penchant for activism, which grows stale before circling back to relevance. 

The idea that clicks best for both Nolan and Murphy is the chaos and anxiety running parallel to Oppy’s productivity, the haunting reality of weaponized science, his disdain and mild selfishness outweighing his critical thinking. If nothing else, let it be the conduit by which the pair stimulate and overwhelm the senses without end. At its peak, it’s a cacophony of noise plaguing his senses, editor Jennifer Lame’s (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever) gallery of quick cuts mirroring dense core memories, Richard King’s (The Sea Beast) array of ghostly wails pounding the eardrums, and Ludwig Goransson’s (Turning Red) resonant, string-heavy score causing the heart to skip a beat. If only that could save Nolan’s persistent failure to clarify dialogue in the final mix, but small victories. 

The ultimate centerpiece is, as expected, the Trinity Test. The entire cast and crew, including DP Hoyte van Hoytema (Nope) capturing the fury with earth-conscious shot making, all in awe for a sight whose beauty surpasses its lethality. The peak of Nolan’s artistic mojo lies in succeeding with the objective at hand, not heeding much mind to its buildup, or the grinding comedown that follows soon after. Despite Murphy blazing a wild trail for future biopic icons, Oppenheimer can’t always stay on the bullseye. When it does, the caveats all but temper its potential. Blame Nolan for wanting to play off the beaten path a little, still as exhaustive, and intensive as ever. Here, despite strength in casting and visual flourishes, and the statement it makes for big-screen spectacle, it gets to be too much, for too long. (3/5; C+) 

Oppenheimer opens in theaters July 21, previews begin 5PM July 20; local specialty engagements at AMC Pacific Place (70mm print), SIFF Cinema Uptown (35mm), and Pacific Science Center (for that full-frame IMAX); rated R for some sexuality, nudity, and language; 180 minutes.