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'Oppenheimer' review: Ambitious, deeply Nolan, deeply flawed

Cillian Murphy and Florence Pugh are striking, but is that enough?
'Oppenheimer' review: Ambitious, deeply Nolan, deeply flawed

How do you turn the story of the atomic bomb's creation into a thriller suitable for blockbuster status in the thick of summer movie season? If you're writer/director Christopher Nolan, you stack your cast with an almost absurd list of stars and twist the tale of J. Robert Oppenheimer into a three-prong exploration of genius, regret, and historic horror.?

For Nolan devotees, there's plenty in Oppenheimer to marvel over, from its incredible ensemble's crackling chemistry to Ludwig G?ransson's immersive and disturbing score, to a corner of modern history that challenges audiences with complex moral questions and unapologetic dread. But after a year's worth of anticipation —?and a rivalry with Greta Gerwig's Barbie —?肠补苍 Oppenheimer live up to the hype as Nolan's best film yet??

From where I stand, no.?

What's Oppenheimer about??

Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss and Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer.

As screenwriter and director, Nolan has adapted Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin's non-fiction book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer into a historical epic that centers on the adult life of the "father of the atomic bomb." Cillian Murphy, who has previously worked with Nolan on The Dark Knight trilogy, Dunkirk, and Inception, stars as Oppenheimer, the Jewish-American theoretical physicist who led the U.S. government's secret Manhattan Project, which developed the first nuclear weapons.

Wisely, Nolan doesn't lay out the chronology in a straightforward manner. Like his Memento, the material becomes more compelling when the timeline is complicated. In Oppenheimer, three narratives are interwoven. The first is in 1954, when a fifty-something Oppenheimer faces a security hearing, his past being dredged up and twisted before a board of vultures from the United States Atomic Energy Commission, hungry for his ruin. The second occurs in 1959, when shoe salesman turned political powerhouse Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) is rehashing his involvement with Oppenheimer during a confirmation hearing for President Eisenhower's cabinet. The third is the story of Oppenheimer's love of physics and mercurial women, and how the former led to the building of the A-bomb and the horrific bombings of Japan's Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.?

Across a story that spans decades, Nolan folds in hordes of real figures, casting them with a fleet of stars including: Matt Damon, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Benny Safdie, David Krumholtz, Matthew Modine, David Dastmalchian, Jack Quaid, Dane DeHaan, Jason Clarke, James D'Arcy, Tony Goldwyn, Alex Wolff, and Kenneth Branagh. Basically, a flood of critically acclaimed white male actors, and then a sprinkling of heralded actresses — Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt — playing a pair of Nolan's sexy but dangerously temperamental women.?

Christopher Nolan leans into frustrating clichés.?

Florence Pugh plays Jean Tatlock.

Nolan has long been criticized for his shallow depictions of women, who are typically sultry and smart, but tragic —?like sulking (and often fridged) wives of The Prestige, Inception, and Memento. In Oppenheimer, Olivia Thirlby has a small role as scientist Lilli Hornig, who worked on the Manhattan Project, and so escapes this archetype. Meanwhile, Pugh, one of the most talented actresses of her generation, is reduced to weeping and nudity, despite playing Jean Tatloc, a politically influential psychiatrist with her own story to tell. Meanwhile, Blunt plays Oppenheimer's wife, Kitty, a belligerent drunk whose scenes predominantly see her pep-talking her husband or berating her yowling baby, with her one moment of redemption being captivatingly catty with one of his many enemies.?

Nolan's women often showcase emotions his male characters are too repressed to express. So is the case here, where Oppenheimer's lovers come off as hysterical in the face of his unshakeable stoicism. Murphy is intriguing in the lead role, of a man whose imagination and scientific know-how torment him with the terrible possibilities of mankind and the universe. But Nolan rejects the showboating exhibitionism of emotion that many a Hollywood historical epic would favor. Instead, G?ransson's score barrels into the film, persistently, giving a booming voice to Oppenheimer's fears, brewing dread, and moral horror, where the character dare not flinch.

This score, paired with a relentlessly propulsive edit from Jennifer Lame (Tenet, Blonde, Don't Worry Darling), makes the first two and twenty minutes of Nolan's three-hour film blaze by. However, Nolan grows indulgent, piling up examples of the evidence h/movies/25259/oppenheimer-review-ambitious-deeply-nolan-deeply-flawed/urled at his eponymous protagonist, and in the last leg, Oppenheimer begins to drag. Its hero's dedicatedly restrained persona is no help here, offering diminishing returns as the movie becomes increasingly about men arguing over boardroom tables. To Nolan's credit, this banal situation stays interesting for much longer than one might think on paper. But my patience wore thin as the director gave into one of his favorite indulgences: a bleeding soundscape.?

The music, which screams with strings, horns, and even Geiger counter noise, is sensational in its swelling but also is used without remorse throughout Oppenheimer. In a montage sequence where Oppenheimer and his colleague, General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), build their crew of top scientists for the Los Alamos-based project, the music is so dominant, so booming that it becomes near impossible to make out what some of the characters are saying. (Similar complaints were made about Tenet.) This becomes a recurring issue in Oppenheimer.

Likely by design, the specifics of scientific talk or character motivations are drowned out by the score, perhaps reflecting Nolan's impatience with these details or his trust that the audience will get the gist and follow the BRAAAAAHMMMMMM of the audioscape.?

Matt Damon proves a surprising standout in Oppenheimer.?

Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves.

Nolan's got a skill for cast and bringing together epic ensembles, and Oppenheimer is no exception. Praise will rightly be poured on a lot of the cast members: Downey Jr. sheds the slick Tony Stark swagger to play a compelling cagey politician. Blunt brings bite to a role that is woefully two-dimensional, yet fun to watch because of her verve. David Krumholtz is a solid scene-stealer as physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi, bringing in a mischievousness and humility that many of his scientist's onscreen colleagues lack. David Dastmalchian is satisfyingly grim as a fearsome foe with an ax to grind. Murphy will no doubt be heralded —?perhaps by the Academy too —?for his reserved yet largely riveting portrayal of a complicated man. (That Oppenheimer falls into the trap of behaving like it's only male geniuses who are complicated can not be blamed on Murphy). However, Matt Damon proved to be the most surprising and thrilling performer in the bunch.?

As the general bullying about the scientists of Los Alamos, he's a jarring breath of fresh air. Where they ponder and speak with clever poetry and sophistication, he speaks bluntly with no concern for hurt feelings or wounded egos, and so nearly every one of his lines hits like a punchline. It's brazen and bizarrely funny in the midst of so much darkness. But the comic relief here is more than that. Damon's general is also one of the chief symbols of the danger of nationalism in Oppenheimer. His resolute attitude and bravado become as much a red flag as an amusement. It's one of Nolan's subtler, yet most effective political statements within the film.?

Oppenheimer has a troubling omission.

Unquestionably, Nolan's tackling a massively ambitious endeavor with Oppenheimer, unf/movies/25259/oppenheimer-review-ambitious-deeply-nolan-deeply-flawed/urling a story that not only includes dozens of characters, decades of real events, complicated political debates, and dizzying scientific explanations. He aims to propel it through star power, character study, and a literally seat-rattling score. But for all the historic name-dropping and scenes of debate about the bomb's intentions and its impact, there's a disturbing omission: Japan.?

On one hand, showing the devastation that the atomic bomb had on Japan and its people might have risked turning real-life human horror into gaudy summer spectacle. In Oppenheimer, the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is discussed in statistics of the dead and terse descriptions of their agony. At one point, Oppenheimer goes to a lecture, where a slideshow of the fallout is shown, but Nolan keeps it offscreen, focusing instead on Murphy's expression, which is restrained but presumably remorseful.

The closest Oppenheimer gets to visualizing the human cost of the bomb is when its protagonist imagines what would happen if it hit during the pep rally he's speaking at, where the crowd is cheering his name. A flash of light. The skin of a white woman's face peels away as she applauds. Oppenheimer imagines stepping — not just on but through — a charred corpse, c/movies/25259/oppenheimer-review-ambitious-deeply-nolan-deeply-flawed/urled up at his feet. It's a glimpse into this nightmare that haunted the bomb's makers, but was much more to the Japanese, who are not represented in any way within the film.

In the end, Oppenheimer is unsettling. It's supposed to be with its aim to reignite the conversation around nuclear weapons and their seeming guarantee of mutually assured destruction. But beyond that very concerning thesis, Nolan seems less aware of the tiresome tropes and troubling choices his film makes, which puts white men at the center of the conversation and its fringes while making all others into distraction or collateral damage.?

How to watch: Oppenheimer releases in theaters on July 21.

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