Thursday, February 22, 2024

Review: Stunning “Oppenheimer” Christopher Nolan’s Masterpiece in Oscars Race


There’s a lot to unpack in Christopher Nolan’s three hour masterwork, “Oppenheimer.” This is ostensibly the story of how America created the atomic bomb and a legacy of pending nuclear war starting in the 1940s and looming over us today.

It’s also a cautionary tale of how this country creates heroes and tries to destroy them all at the same time. “E Pluribus Unum” should really be replaced as our motto by “No good deed goes unpunished.”

For Nolan, “Oppenheimer” is a career high after two decades worth of innovative, intriguing filmmaking. All his sensational turns and rearranging of time have led to this moment. Forget “Barbenheimer.” This should be “Operaheimer.”

Cillian Murphy and Emily Blunt, who have immense chemistry, reunite from “A Quiet Place Part 2” as J Robert Oppenheimer and his his difficult wife, Kitty. She may be overwrought because he’s a distracted, emotionally distant womanizer (as described by others in the film) who’s got a quirky mistress (Florence Pugh) with a Communist past. (Here are Nolan’s first ever sex scenes.) Oppenheimer’s brother is also enamored of the American Communist party. But J Robert resists. Science is his focus. But, of course, the Communist associations will come back to bite him.

With these characters set up, Nolan begins mixing in the exceptional supporting cast beginning with Robert Downey Jr as Lewis Strauss (pronounced Stras, he says) head of the Atomic Energy Commission. Because Downey has been playing Iron Man for a generation no one recalls his Oscar nomination for playing Charlie Chaplin. But Downey is more than up to the challenge with the duplicitous Strauss, whose neck veins are always on the verge of exploding as he navigates his own Washington career at the expense of Oppenheimer. This is Downey’s performance of a lifetime.

There are plenty of other talented people doing exceptional work including Matt Damon, Josh Hartnett, David Krumholtz, Jason Clarke, Tony Goldwyn, Alden Ehrenreich, Kenneth Branagh, Macon Blair, and, inevitably, Gary Oldman as a surprise Harry Truman. Matthias Schweighöfer pops off the screen as German physicist Werner Heisenberg. Rami Malek and Casey Affleck each steal their respective scenes. Matthew Modine brings profoundly weary gravity to his moments. Nolan has rounded up the best people for this ensemble.

The other major player here aside from all these people is composer Ludwig Goransson. As a friend of mine said, this movie scored from wall-to-wall. There is rarely a moment without music underneath the dialogue or soaring through scenes of cosmic explosions. So many scenes are a lot of talk, the delivery of information, that the music is the apple sauce that makes the pill go down. The characters are almost singing the lyrics of how to build a better bomb. It helps that editor Jennifer Lame is cutting to the music, establishing a rhythm like it’s in a top 40 hit. You can almost snap your fingers to her work.

Nolan does play with time. but far more efficiently than in some of his previous more frustrating outings. It’s almost like he picked up a cue from Steven Soderberg. The different time lines are color coded and east to keep track of. This is especially helpful since two of the colliding plots are centered on hearings taking place in small rooms at conference tables. Yet they are distinct and build to dramatic counterpoints.

In the end, though, Nolan has constructed a compelling drama about a man upon whom the world’s fate rests. And when he succeeds at his mission, Oppenheimer is eventually punished for realizing the power of his invention. You’d think the highlight of a movie about the atomic bomb would be the actual explosion. But the mushroom cloud Nolan sets off is really after the climax, as the denouement of the film is almost more gripping because Oppenheimer has been so effectively presented as sympathetic but flawed.

We haven’t had a ‘big’ Best Picture in many years. The trend has been to quieter stuff, like “Nomadland,” “Spotlight,” “Moonllght,” etc. Nolan has the audacity here to address history writ large and ponder the universe, our place in it, and how decisions from 80 years ago have affected our present and future. A lot of people who see “Oppenheimer” may be shocked to discover all this really happened. But it really did, and we have this document to memorialize it.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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