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‘Oppenheimer’ (review)

“Theory will only take you so far.”

We hear this over and over in Oppenheimer, as the protagonist and his fellow scientists move from equations scribbled across a chalkboard to a terrifying weapon that will change the course of history.

The same statement can be applied to Christopher Nolan’s twisting and cerebral style of filmmaking.

What is on the page can seem like a brilliant journey full of sharp turns and clever takes but pretentious execution takes away from a gripping story.

While a fan of the director will undoubtedly stand by this awards show fodder, the casual filmgoer may wish for a more straightforward telling of the complicated history of the father of the atomic bomb.

This is Nolan’s longest film, taking 3 hours to translate Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s 700-plus page biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer to screen.

The film moves at a breakneck speed in the first half as it tries to set up every bit character in Oppenheimer’s world as well as just enough exposition to give an idea about the drive behind his genius. The double-time speed of banter is reminiscent of The Gilmore Girls, quick and biting but a bit too fast-paced for deep comprehension or emotional development.

We move quickly from a brash young student willing to poison a professor as payback to an engaging and sought-after mind with little coverage of his emotional growth outside of a few strolls through a museum and an aside about music composition.

The same glancing treatment is given to much of the excellent ensemble. It’s a shame, as the cast is stuffed to the margins with talent that barely graces the screen. Why dangle several Oscar winners in front of the audience but give many of them less than 15 minutes of total usable screen time? The shortcut of affinity by using a beloved actor may work for some, but many of us were simply confused at the waste of prime talent.

Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt, in particular, are more accessories than actors but both use their scant time wisely enough to make us wish for any scenes that hit the cutting room floor.

Those lucky mains that get to fall into rich roles do so with the power of a thousand suns. Cillian Murphy is outstanding as the genius, womanizing, and increasingly uncomfortable Oppenheimer. He charms, he coerces, he frets, he unravels, an arc that allows Murphy to give the best performance of his career. Robert Downey Jr. abandons the flashy bravado of his MCU character for a quiet power that is just as cocky but significantly more polished. He is nearly unrecognizable but in the best possible way. Both leads are great at going big, and they have the right director, script, and film format to do so.

Nolan’s love of IMAX is on full display, and you’ll be missing out if you see it on anything else. The company loves him right back, developing a black-and-white IMAX film for the first time so that Nolan could better delineate between Oppenheimer’s perspective (color) and Strauss’ cold take on events (B&W). Everything is bombastic, but when it is not dazzling it is distancing, similar to Oppenheimer himself.

Watching a theorist who adamantly tells colleagues he is not the one that “builds things” lead that very initiative for multiple years can be exhausting, especially when told in Nolan’s style – jumping back and forth at a fast clip that demands you stay on the edge of your seat not because you are consistently engaged, but because you will be the last kid in class if you miss a key aside.

This is still an excellent movie, full of stellar performances and a proper dramatization of the Pulitzer-winning book.

But as any engineer can tell you, excellent is by no means flawless.

* * * * *
Produced by Emma Thomas, Charles Roven, Christopher Nolan
Based on American Prometheus by Kai Bird, Martin J. Sherwin
Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh,
Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh

 

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