One-line review: This Christopher Nolan’s bomb of a movie restores humanity.

I saw Oppenheimer thrice, once in a regular IMAX and then twice in the IMAX 70 mm on consecutive days. I had second thoughts the third time about spending three hours again so soon, but I wanted to experience this rare phenomenon of human bonding again while it lasted. A full house glued to high drama; the few lighter moments in the film usually elicit nervous laughter from a few people, but they quickly silence themselves. I have seen many in the audience leaning forward in rapt attention for the entire three hours and overheard others saying they were seeing it again right after watching it.  

The audio-visual experience is clearly the main attraction: the CGI-free teeth-chattering explosion preceded by silence is now part of cinema history. The anticipation of the blast is like going to a haunted house for Halloween. And Nolan does not disappoint despite the hype; in fact, he repeats the silence-noise formula a few more times, ensuring repeat viewers get more bang for their buck (pun intended). But after watching the film thrice and coming away exhilarated each time, I am convinced the film’s spine is Christopher Nolan’s blistering script, aided by Jennifer Lame’s seamless editing. Lame says Nolan told her he was making a movie about people in a room talking, her forte, and an offer she could not resist. 

Similarly, the film’s music composer, Ludwig Göransson, says Nolan asked him to score the film like a thriller. Robert Downey Jr.’s notes were to play Lewis Strauss, Oppenheimer’s nemesis, like Salieri to Mozart in Amadeus. As you watch the film the second time, it is the interrogation scenes and the Senate confirmation scenes that stand out. The scenes are so high-octane, and the performances so visceral that I felt like punching Jason Clarke (who plays the prosecutor, Roger Robb, relentlessly pursuing Oppenheimer) and asking him to shut up and leave the genius Oppie alone. Nolan says when working with an ensemble, he casts actors who bring different kinds of energy to the scenes. It pays off handsomely here, especially since everyone brings their A-game. For example, in the interrogation scene, Clarke’s menacing energy is balanced out by the quiet strength of the excellent Macon Blair as Oppenheimer’s lawyer, Lloyd Garrison. With such a large cast, there are bound to be stumbles, but interestingly, they are from the big stars like Casey Affleck and Rami Malek, who seem out of place amidst the seasoned character actors.   

There are other reasons why the film is a phenomenon. In an interview, when asked what a Nolan film means, he replied that audiences must know that, whether they like it or not, Nolan has done everything he can to make the film as excellent as possible. That is why you cannot ignore a Nolan film, whether you like it or not. Nolan has been criticized for the often intelligible conversations in his films, but this is also because the IMAX cameras are noisy. Dutch ace cinematographer and frequent Nolan collaborator Hoyte Van Hoytema carried the bulky single camera on his shoulders and likened himself to a one-eyed monster constantly peeking at the actors. 

The film also presents a chilling truth about how little the public knows about our grave danger. In this case, a handful of scientists and army officers were willing to go ahead with a blast that could annihilate the planet. These are men with the highest intellect and integrity, so I shudder to think about the power that AI gives unscrupulous characters to play with our fates. It is a sobering thought and why people, young and old, are returning to the theaters. In these times of deep fake, hearing what a prophet like Nolan has to say is comforting. But people are carrying this too far by asking Nolan and team to comment on America’s nuclear policy, world peace, and the arms race, like they are experts. We are desperate to trust, and in Nolan’s integrity, we trust.                 

But eventually, the story is king, and what a story it is of ambition, lust, betrayal, integrity, justice, and good looks; it helps that Oppenheimer is a mesmerizing character. A man with a blinding intelligence yet surprisingly naive to his detriment. As Strauss says, genius is no guarantee of wisdom. The film would not have worked if Oppenheimer did not have integrity, at least by his standards. It was interesting to hear Oppenheimer being called a man of unquestionable integrity by his colleagues right after Jean Tatlock’s death from a broken heart. Eventually, everyone gets the ending they deserve, including Oppenheimer and his nemesis, Strauss. 

I recently binge-watched the excellent Netflix series Mindhunter. But its unresolved ending leaves you hungry after a binge, while Oppenheimer ties up the loose ends and is deeply satisfying, although it is a tragic ending (Oppenheimer’s brilliant physicist brother spent the rest of his days as a railroad worker because of his Communist part history). In some ways, like Hamilton, the audiences are bent on dispensing delayed justice to Oppenheimer.  Aristotle said that evaluating your happiness extends beyond your life span; what an unexpected resurrection Oppenheimer has had, especially among the youth. 

Of course, no amount of deft writing and storyboarding would work without the performances. Like Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy, after two decades of patiently working with Nolan in character roles, is given the Herculean task of carrying three hours on his frail shoulders. You must accept that charisma is innate since Murphy burns through the screen without resorting to any gimmicks; it is an internalized performance and a master class in acting. Nolan cast him, among other things, for his eyes, which convey emotions more than words; during the interrogation scenes, Murphy’s eyes are lifeless, like the eyes of a dead fish. It will be a shame if he does not get every award out there. Robert Downey Jr. is rightfully getting a lot of buzz; a lesser actor would have turned Strauss into a caricature since it is written almost one-dimensionally. In a movie sinking under the weight of men, two women with bit parts prove why femme fatale is real. Florence Pugh is voluptuous and mercurial; you get her appeal; she is the elusive doe Oppenheimer cannot resist. Emily Blunt pouts through most of the movie, although it is a good pout, but gets a chance to prove why Oppenheimer looked up to her despite being surrounded by scientific geniuses. It was gratifying to see both his wife and friend recognize his genius and get out of his way so he could pursue his dream unfettered. 

Matt Damon is excellent, although formulaic, as the pompous General Groves. Benny Safdie brings the right energy as the hot-tempered Edward Teller; Tom Conti deftly plays the tricky role of Einstein (another role that could get caricaturish); Kenneth Branagh and David Krumholtz as Neils Bohr and physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi, ooze integrity as Oppenheimer’s friends. Dane DeHaan as Kenneth Nichols is miscast and brings a wannabe James Bond villain or an Inglorious Basterds type of faux energy to the role. Standing out among the otherwise across-the-board excellent performances are Alden Ehrenreich as the Senate aide and Gregory Jbarra as Senator Warren.        

As I left the cinema and saw all the happy faces, I realized this rare Barbenheimer summer, uniting people to have a good time, will soon be over. I already feel nostalgic; I should go back the fourth time.    

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