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"Oppenheimer" Review

 Well, this was unexpected. Somehow after 13 years and four increasingly appallingly bad movies which had me repeatedly calling for the revocation of his filmmaking privileges, Christopher Nolan has finally made a movie that isn't absolute garbage.

His six films from 2000-2010 starting with Memento and ending with Inception were all very good to excellent (scores: 7-10), but starting with 2012's The Dark Knight Reloaded (as I will never stop calling it) thru 2020's Tenet (which got to hide its failure behind the Hot Fad Plague) have been one misbegotten self-absorbed steaming piles of manure after another (score: 2-4). He believed his hype from legions of fawning fans who have placed him in the same area as Martin Scorsese where they believe that because he made great movies in the past, that means everything he makes now is also great.

So it was with zero enthusiasm where I sat down for three hours of Nolan called Oppenheimer. I had skipped the whole "Barbenheimer" silliness last year and couldn't believe a long biopic about the Father of the Atomic Bomb would gross nearly one billion dollars with the general public who probably would've skipped it if not for the magic Nolan name. (But people think Train rocks, so...)

But at the conclusion I was pleasantly surprised that I didn't want to beat anyone up for liking this, but quickly realized that what Nolan had done was somehow fill three hours with almost no content, obscuring it with flashy filmmaking and a manic score by Ludwig Göransson which keeps the viewer hyped and awake and feeling they're watching something meaningful. So, yay?

 Cillian Murphy stars as J. Robert Oppenheimer and in a return to Nolan's self-indulgent gimmick from Dunkirk the story is told via two interlaced timelines: one in color titled Fission, covering Oppie's life beginning as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge through the development of the A-bomb at Los Alamos in the context of a star chamber proceeding considering whether he should retain his security clearance in 1954; the other in black & white titled Fusion, which covers the Senate confirmation hearing of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.) in 1959 and how he waged a vendetta against Oppenheimer over slights, petty and imagined. (Of course the later chronological scenes are in B&W because Nolan.)

 Along the way we're treated to a whirlwind of familiar names (if you're a nuclear science nerd like I was as a yoot) and faces as a legion of famous actors flow by so swiftly you don't really catch names, just roles. There's Florence Pugh as Jean, a Communist mistress of Oppie's (and features in the first sex scenes of Nolan's entire career) who he still sees after marrying Emily Blunt's Kitty and starting a family. Matt Damon as the general in charge of Manhattan Project; Josh Hartnett as Op's best friend who invented the cyclotron; Rami Malek, Benny Safdie, Kenneth Branagh, David Krumholtz as scientists; Tom Conto as Albert Einstein. Casey Affleck, Dane DeHaan are military men; Jason Clarke, Tony Goldwyn, Matthew Modine, David Dastmalchian, Alden Ehrenreich and more are lawyers and politicos. Hey, it's Gary Oldman under a ton of makeup playing Harry S. Truman! A cast of many!

With so many people and places and events all jumbled together, the viewer is always scrambling to keep things straight and figure out what the connections are. While not utilizing the stock linear biopic template may've been an attempt to freshen the formula, the way Nolan jumps back and forth in order to hide the thin excuse motivating what Oppenheimer is subjected to until deep into its third hour results in an immediate feeling that you've witnessed something sprawling and epic, but the next day realizing nothing stuck with you because there was little substance there.

Here's what I recall about Oppenheimer: Hat, haunted stare, ummm, smart...that's about it. We don't get any feeling for his relationship with Kitty (a nominated Blunt, mostly for a couple of simmering scenes, but not much else) and why Janet was so important. We get a better sense of the rivalries and disputes between the founders of the Atomic Age and some of the moral qualms about the practical applications of their theoretical research. While there may be an intellectual kick to developing a bomb that could set off a chain reaction that would set the Earth's atmosphere on fire, killing everything on the planet, there is that whole ENDING THE WORLD side effect if someone used this invention.

Because quantum theory is so complicated to understand for non-Big Brain folks, Nolan attempts to present an impressionistic picture of the unimaginable (like the ridiculous 4D Magic Bookcase inside the black hole at the end of Interstellar), so he throws random whirring glowing things and macro photography left over from a Pink Floyd planetarium show and shots of Op tossing glasses into the corner of the room watching them shatter as if divining the Secrets of the Universe in the shards. I hated A Beautiful Mind and sold the DVD immediately after watching it (which is the ultimate rejection considering how much bad stuff I keep), but the way Ron Howard visualized game theory and how John Nash viewed the world explained the arcane concept where Nolan doesn't even try, preferring to flash some lights and crank the score volume.

And speaking of flashing lights, much was made of Nolan's proclamation that he wouldn't use any CGI VFX to recreate the Trinity bomb test. The obvious joke was that he was going to set off an actual atomic bomb, but the absolutely underwhelming depiction of this explosion makes one wish he had done so as this explosion which they weren't 100% certain wouldn't set the atmosphere on fire is nothing more than a big gasoline explosion which looks nothing like an atomic bomb mushroom cloud. THE moment of the whole story is a damp squib.

But that test occurs about 2/3rds of the way through the three hour runtime leaving a whole hour of vamping to babystep to the only real conflict of the film, that the reason for the 1954 inquisition stemmed from Stauss' butthurt over being mocked at a hearing by Oppenheimer after the war and his imagining to be the subject of disrespect by him and Einstein when they meet in 1947 when Strauss was trying to get O.P.P. to set up at Princeton. When we finally realize why Opie was subjected to such suspicion it elicits the first real emotional reaction to the story, but it's too little, too late.

With such a stacked cast, there are no real weak performances, just performances set adrift by the sparsity of Nolan's everything everywhere all for three hours screenplay. Pugh gets naked and kills herself, but so what? Blunt is the stoic partner to a man whose attention was always elsewhere, but who cares? Damon is good, everyone's good, but they mostly come and go without a lasting impression. The big surprise was Hartnett, who looks different enough and his acting through his eyebrows for once.

Cillian Murphy is a 50-50 favorite, along with Paul Giamatti, for Best Actor, but he is playing such an internally conflicted character whose actions are inscrutable - why exactly did he almost murder a professor? Seems a bit over-reactive - due to the Cliff's Notes script and Nolan's ADHD narrative that all that remains is the hat and the stare.

On the other hand, Downey Jr. is going to win for his portrayal of Strauss, a petty, vindictive man who put his pride before his fall. Strauss is the villain of the piece, leveraging Op's dalliances with Communism in the 1930s when everyone joined the Commies cuz it was the cool fad before it became a career liability in the 1950s (and ironically a career requirement for liberal politicians and entertainment folks now) into concerns over his loyalty to America. (That we repurposed a bunch of Nazi rocketeers for our space program goes unmentioned due to not being relevant.) Downey deserves to win as much for his performance as the lifetime achievement catch-all it will represent.

Which brings us back to Nolan himself and the personality cult that surrounds him and how he skates on so many flaws because he made The Dark Knight. His fetish for shooting on IMAX - Kodak had to invent a B&W IMAX film stock for this production - and making viewing Oppenheimer in 70mm a quest for his fans despite frequent technical problems in projecting a massive 11-mile-long, 600 lb. film print caused in the handful of theaters even capable of showing it, contributed to a Reality Distortion Field around the content of the film itself. He has gotten away with cranking up the sound so loud you can't hear the dialog and relying on the overwhelming impact of Cillian Murphy staring hauntedly at you six stories tall that the viewer gets bludgeoned into believing they're witnessing Something Really Important. (It made almost a billion bucks, so it clearly worked.)

But if the test of a song is how it stands up to being performed on a guitar or piano with all the other 100 tracks of pop music production stripped away, then the quality of a film should hold up when viewed on a 55-65" HDTV. (No one should be watching movies on a phone or tablet. Let's not be stupid.) And without the kilotons of picture size and sound you get in the theater, the sparsity of the film is exposed. It's a two hour movie stuffed into a three hour sack with too much time spent on the superfluous at the expense of the interesting.

It's not to say there aren't some meaty thoughts rattling around, especially the ethics of these mega weapons and the risk of making something that really shouldn't be used, but if you don't have on hand to deter those with ill intents then may land on your head. But since the science itself is so arcane, that leaves vast voids of time where we see Oppenheimer rush around to meet names nerds only will recognize, but if they cut out half the cast would anyone have noticed. Pugh's character almost seems to exist solely to provide some skin, especially in a weird moment where Blunt imagines her nude and straddling a naked JRO during the trial. Huh?

If you're trying to figure out how this is the first movie of Nolan's I haven't hated yet I've got so little to praise it for, that's the conundrum of Oppenheimer. It's a Big Story about Important People doing Momentous Things that changed the world momentarily for the better, but will probably end us all in the long run told in a fast and furious manner and my praise is mostly due to making three hours sail by without feeling it drag much. (We only took one bathroom and beverage break.)

But the nagging feeling that all the timeline jumping, flashing forward and backward to obscure the payoff that petty small men do cruel things for selfish personal reasons makes the overpraise and likely Oscars gold feel hollow. It's like how the Academy finally noticed Martin Scorsese with The Departed, but then kept nominating his progressively more bloated and unengaging movies afterwards including this year's wretched Killers of the Flower Moon.

 Where does Oppenheimer land in the ranking of the 11 movies I've seen of Nolan's? At number 7 as more the best of his bad movies than the worst of his good ones. At least he's not going to get stroked by the Academy for something awful, but still.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable. (It's on Peacock now.)


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