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‘Oppenheimer’ 4K UHD (review)

Universal

(Warning: plot twists discussed in explicit detail)

Get this out of the way: Christopher Nolan is the 2023 box office savior of modern American cinema.

He didn’t accomplish this alone, though; in collaboration with Greta Gerwig, they (or whatever brilliant member of their respective marketing teams) hit upon the Barbieheimer gimmick.

Good for him especially (Barbie was always going to make money), not likely a sustainable trend but a nice unexpected bump. Hooray for Hollywood.

As for the movie itself– easily the weakest sequence in the 180 minute running time is the Trinity test. Nice run up to the explosion itself including the mattresses laid out for soldiers outside, the debate over whether or not to wear protective glasses, Fermi’s gruesome betting pool (any odds on the atmosphere catching fire?).

Nolan loves to cut his footage and an argument can be made that this editing style is his way of evoking the divisive nature of fission but when the money shot finally comes– the big bang which Nolan in interviews has bragged was made entirely via analog means– he cuts up the footage to feature several angles, inserts reaction shots from people, does everything in his power to rob the dramatic moment of its drama.

Possibly he saw David Lynch’s version, decided not to compete (smart move when you think about it), but let’s pause a moment to consider how Lynch did his: extreme long shot with camera gliding over the New Mexico desert, no overloud music not even an explanation (most we get is a voice on a speaker counting down). Then a thousand watt lightbulb switches on and Penderecki shrieks on the soundtrack.

Visually not just the stronger blow but the more scientifically accurate: you see the smoke trail of sounding rockets to the side, the double pulse of the shockwave overtaking the fireball, the gradual formation of the spinning toroid. Oh it’s possible Nolan included these details, but the cutting is so confusing the takeaway impression is of yet another standard-issue car bomb– all that’s missing is the vehicle flipping and the hero walking away in slow motion, smoking match tossed aside.

Nolan still needs to learn to keep the camera on the money shot. He cut away while depicting a crucial trick in The Prestige; he also cut away when depicting a long jump across a high ledge in The Dark Knight Rises— difficult to catch one’s breath when the director’s busy inserting reactions from the crowd below.

Lynch likely did his explosion digitally (cursory Google search didn’t reveal any production details and if he won’t explain his baby in Eraserhead I doubt if he’ll explain this) combining details from all known archival footage of the event, and one thing I’ll say for doing this: digital allowed Lynch the control to do it as accurately as possible. Plus the detonation didn’t seem digital, and I submit it helps that Lynch is a master not just of imagery but sound: the ominous silence, the faint blare of loudspeaker, the sudden burst of Penderecki. Nolan tries something similar (he drops the sound once the bomb is triggered) but his editing is so frenetic you don’t really register the effect.

Lynch’s, incidentally, was done on a significant portion of the $41 million total budget he was grudgingly given (he at one point walked away till his money demands were met), compared to the considerable chunk of $100 million Nolan commanded for his big screen attempt.

So there’s that. As for the rest– the first half is Nolan’s standard-issue card-shuffling narrative style outlining eponymous hero’s life up to his grand achievement, the second half Nolan clumsily explaining everything that’s happened so far (with Robert Downey Jr.’s Strauss emerging as the scheming Salieri to Oppenheimer’s Mozart*). The biography the movie was based on, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s American Prometheus at 700 plus pages likely has the room to tell the story properly (haven’t read it alas) but even at 180 minutes Nolan’s latest epic stretches its seams trying to accommodate both biopic and government investigation– like The Imitation Game or Edison the Man with A Few Good Men stitched to its rear end. The material cries out for a medium that privileges dialogue over visual spectacle, a medium with room enough for extensive characterization to sink in and plot details dropped early in the story to be properly reiterated (maybe at the ‘previously’ segment). Netflix, anyone?

*(Actually critics point at Strauss unfairly when Priscilla McMillan in The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer reportedly (again have not read) makes the case that the real Salieri might have been Edward Teller– not only did he undermine his boss then excused himself for doing so, he wasn’t genius enough, apparently, to invent the H bomb (it was Stanislaw Ulam who came up with the idea of using a ‘staged implosion’ to compress and detonate the fusion fuel))

I suspect Nolan doesn’t have the patience or confidence to let his expensively produced imagery sink in; he has to chop it up and shuffle it around and leave it to us to try keep up and sort it out, and when it comes to something like American Prometheus that does the novel and its themes a huge disservice. Yes we need to remember what monstrous thing Oppenheimer once did and that (to his credit) he tried to make amends; yes we need to know how mercilessly government or even just one vindictive man can manipulate matters to bring a good man (or at least a flawed man trying to do a good thing) down. Would make a bigger impact if Nolan had just told the story straight, no chaser.

Extras include two documentaries, featurettes, Meet the Press Q&A panel, and trailers.

Should Nolan have included footage of the bombings? Not sure. Oppenheimer never visited Hiroshima, never explicitly apologized for his role in the Manhattan Project; arguably he paid a price but compared to what the folks at Nagasaki and Hiroshima paid is it enough? More important, is the picture right for not even raising the question?

All this, the incoherence, the frivolous jumping about, the silence on certain topics, I’d actually be willing to wave aside or excuse or even forgive (aesthetically if not morally) if I can be allowed the pleasure of experiencing the mix of black and white and color and past and present as assembled by an accomplished filmmaker with a sense of rhythm and grace but I didn’t. I experienced that in Andrew Dominik’s equally lengthy Blonde, a film as maligned as this one was praised. Lots of flaws in Blonde, lots of hate inspired, basically stemming from the misunderstanding of what the picture is (it’s not a biopic it’s a horror fantasy) but at least the various disparate footage flowed and Dominik adds a little lyricism to his filmmaking. Why is that condemned for maligning Marilyn while this is praised for saving what’s left of American moviegoing?

I don’t know; I really don’t.

History is funny that way.

 

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