Over the last few years I’ve had a bit of a messy relationship with director Christopher Nolan. I in general enjoyed his films without feeling the reverential devotion most of his fans seem to feel. Then he came out with Tenet and I was completely turned off by the entire film. Aside from the impressive visuals I couldn’t stand the pretentiousness of the character and story choices and the blaring score and unintelligible dialogue made for one of the most unpleasant movie experiences I’ve ever had. The ego that it took to put that basically arthouse piece in theaters at that point in the pandemic really offended me and lowered my estimation for the director quite a bit.
All that said I go into every film with a fresh set of eyes and so I went into his new film Oppenheimer hopeful he would win me back into the fold and after seeing it I’d say I’m partly there. It’s a mixed bag but I do recommend the film and fortunately the 35mm cut I saw had understandable sound design and a score that for the most part didn’t dominate the dialogue. That said, the film is mostly effective as a historical teaching device more than it is a moving, emotional character study. It’s impressive but not something I will ever be drawn to watch again or feel connected with on a deeper level. It felt like a clinical exercise and in the end left me cold and unaffected.
Like I said, the strengths of the film are the impressive attention to detail movie making capturing the 1930s setting and Los Alamos. Also the detonation scene was very well done and I kind of wish the movie had stopped there because the next 45 minutes felt repetitive and full of expository moralizing. Especially when you have such a simple concept of a right and wrong for atomic weapons scores of witnesses and dialogue begin to try our patience as viewers.
What’s interesting about Oppenheimer is I wasn’t ever bored, which is saying something for a 180 minute movie. It was interesting to see what was going to happen and to learn about these events of history. I felt the same way about Nolan’s Dunkirk, but I think that movie moved me more emotionally with the simpler linear narrative and community spirit. Plus Dunkirk was a lot shorter at only 106 minutes.
A big miss for me in the film was the female characters especially Florence Pugh’s Jean Tatlock who I have learned since watching was not portrayed accurately but even Emily Blunt’s character Kitty Oppenheimer exists only to provide motivation for Oppenheimer. Literally it is implied if he doesn’t value and love them they have no reason to live. The nudity was also unnecessary and frankly given the time and context made the female characters look silly.
Most of the other cast is good, but I didn’t see a lot that wowed me including Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer and Robert Downey Jr as Lewis Strauss (the Strauss side of the story was less compelling and I did not care for the non-linear format inserting his scenes in black and white into the Oppenheimer story. It broke up momentum for the more interesting Los Alamos storyline.)
Still, I would recommend Oppenheimer. It’s impressive a studio would spend $100 million on such a methodical, serious historical epic that many mainstream filmgoers might have trouble connecting with. I left the theater feeling like I’d learned something and it was awe inspiring to watch but Nolan did not develop his characters or story in a way that moved me or left me with much other than a clinical exercise in historical moviemaking. Take that for what you will.
7 out of 10
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