Review: Oppenheimer (2023)

Oppenheimer (2023)

Directed by: Christopher Nolan | 180 minutes | biography, drama | Actors: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, Scott Grimes, Jason Clarke, Kurt Koehler, Tony Goldwyn, John Gowans, Macon Blair, James D’Arcy, Kenneth Branagh, Harry Groener, Gregory Jbara, Tim Dekay , Steven Houska, Tom Conti, David Krumholtz

What if you are the leader of a science collective that is giving humanity the most dangerous weapon yet? And then you get remorse about this. Look no further than J. Robert Oppenheimer, also called Oppie by family and friends, by the world the father of the atomic boom. It was almost inconceivable that this tragic life story wouldn’t cross the path of Christopher Nolan, a filmmaker with an inordinate interest in mathematical puzzles, physics paradoxes and broken souls. As a more realistic twin brother of ‘Inception’ (2011), Nolan once again shows with ‘Oppenheimer’ the unprecedented power of dreams and ideas that can turn into a nightmare in an instant.

Nolan based his vision of Oppenheimer on the acclaimed book ‘American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer’ (2005) by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Over a period of twenty years, Sherwin collected approximately 50,000 pages of interviews, transcripts, letters and interrogations. Because he got stuck in the project, he persuaded editor and writer friend Bird, albeit with great difficulty, to forge a readable whole. The making of the book also reflects how intense, and above all, full this film of Nolan has become, a wounded mastodon with an endless chain reaction at its heart.

You follow Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), an exceptionally talented and insecure oddball, at various prestigious universities across America and Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. At the recommendation of physics theorist Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), a scientific star of his time , the young man focuses entirely on the emerging science of quantum physics. He becomes obsessed with thinking about this reality behind reality. The atomic level is one of unprecedented possibilities and powers. Moreover, he can introduce quantum physics in America because they have not eaten much of it there yet.

Back at home, the social late bloomer bumps into his first love at a political rally, the hot-tempered Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). She breaks him out of the ivory tower of science, in which he is now very successful, and introduces him to communist circles. However, their love does not last long. Shortly afterwards, in 1939, Oppenheimer meets the cantankerous Katherine “Kitty” Puening (Emily Blunt), whom he marries and has a child some time later.

Because Oppenheimer is an authority on quantum mechanics and nuclear research, General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) recruits him for the Manhattan Project at the start of World War II. This top-secret project is an attempt by the United States to develop an atomic bomb faster than Nazi Germany. The Jewish-American Oppenheimer uses his large network to collect as many brilliant minds as possible. History tells us that this worked out wonderfully. But, as is often the case, the consequences were incalculable. Nolan eagerly taps into this chain reaction of consequences, especially when it comes to a paradox in man: how can scientists, who have the most insight into the destructive sides of a given invention, knowingly go ahead with it?

A biographical film is a first for Nolan, but the new and old Nolan talk to each other in a very interesting way. As in most of his work, he again mixes up timelines and, as in ‘Memento’, he demarcates them by using black and white for one timeline and color for the other. And compared to the ‘Mission Impossible’-esque phantasmagoria of ‘Tenet’, Nolan, through the signature deafening music, offers a more frightening glimpse of how Oppenheimer feels in a world of science, which he is only too happy to fathom, and worlds in which he is constantly in danger of drowning, the private and political sphere.

It is striking how much attention Nolan pays to the fallout for Oppenheimer from dropping the bomb in Japan. Meanwhile, the father of the atomic bomb has deep remorse about the invention and the resulting nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union and preaches for international cooperation to get the monster back in the bottle. The conservative wind blowing through America after the Second World War would have none of that. After all, how could that weapon have turned up so quickly in Russia? With his personal relationships and role in the Manhattan Project, the haunted Oppenheimer is the perfect tipsy game. For him, this time mainly takes place in small rooms where he is accused by a group of men of spying for the Russians and communist tendencies (laced with personal details and testimonies). The inflammatory tone of the paranoid witch hunters is stiflingly repetitive and wrings out almost every molecule of the acclaimed scientist. Depression is never far away. In this sense, although it involves other scales and styles, Nolan’s plunge into a tormented mind with a horror undertone shares DNA with Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘There Will Be Blood’ (2007) and Ari Aster’s ‘Beau Is Afraid’ (2023).

The awe-inspiring ‘Oppenheimer’ rivals the acclaimed Hollywood films of the 1970s in ambition, execution and deep fascination with the intertwining of the personal and the political. But then crammed into a Nolan jacket. Moreover, all the talent on the production, as well as at the Manhattan operation, guarantees few mishaps. But this also results in a grueling, somewhat hermetic, look at a haunted American hero of almost mythical proportions. The film hardly thinks about itself or lets the actors breathe. It continuously steams on to want to say as much as possible about its subject, which to a certain extent makes it less easy to look away than previous Nolan films. That is by no means a great disgrace and perhaps even a disguised call for blockbuster Hollywood to focus more on making what the viewer gazes at be a mirror that can become part of the permanent furniture in the upper room.

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