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Film Review: Oppenheimer

Written by on August 8, 2023

Film Review: Oppenheimer

So after several unforeseen delays, I finally got the chance to see Oppenheimer – the high-profile much-anticipated biopic about the man who ushered in the atomic era. Director Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk, Interstellar, the Batman Trilogy, etc.) has once again shown that he’s among the few individuals in the current streaming-preoccupied world with the ability to keep cinema tills ringing. After just a couple of weeks, the film has already generated over $500 million in box office revenues.

The piece charts out Robert Oppenheimer’s life. His growing notoriety as a quantum physicist during the 1920s/30s, before taking charge of developing the first nuclear weaponry in the early stages of World War II – despite major concerns about him being a security risk. At the time, the US Military’s priority is simply getting ahead of the Nazis in the race to build an atomic bomb. But the landscape is already changing. Even before Hitler’s defeat, they already view their current Russian allies as being an enemy in the longer term, and this will mean that Oppenheimer’s triumphs eventually count for nothing and he becomes considered a pariah.

His motivation (though ill-founded) for creating the bombs dropped on Japan was to make a statement that he hoped would mean future conflict was unthinkable. The reality turns out totally different, and facing the prospect of a full-scale arms race between the US and the Soviets ensuing, he looks to use his international standing to campaign for peace – but that poses a threat which needs to be silenced. This all happens against the backdrop of growing Cold War animosity between East and West, plus the rise of McCarthyism.

In similar manner to Alan Turing (as dealt with in ‘The Imitation Game’) those in power are quick to turn their backs on the remarkable individuals that did so much for their countries at times of war, dispensing with them when they are no longer useful. In Turing’s case he was victimised because of his homosexuality, but for Oppenheimer it would be his left-wing beliefs that led to his downfall.

Playing the title role as Robert Oppenheimer is Cillian Murphy – keen to emulate his small screen success with Peaky Blinders on the big screen. Alongside him is a strong cast, featuring:

Robert Downey Jr. – as shady political figure Lewis Strauss, who’s machinations will be pivotal in Oppenheimer’s eventual ruin.
Matt Damon – as the hefty General Groves, the man tasked with recruiting him onto the infamous ‘Manhattan Project.’
Emily Blunt – as his wife Kitty, who though not always likeable is much better at standing up for him than he is himself.
Kenneth Branagh – as scientific luminary Professor Niels Bohr, who on occasion serves as a confidant for Oppenheimer.
There are also notable performances by Florence Pugh, as Jean Tatlock (who initially gets him involved in the communist cause, something that will prove troublesome in his later life) and Benny Safdie as Edward Teller (one of the people that eventually highlights his ‘un-American’ activities to the authorities). Jason Clarke is also very effective as Roger Robb (the brutal counsel brought in to destroy Oppenheimer’s reputation).

Through 3 hours long, the film still has to keep up an unrelenting pace to fit everything in. After the initial characterisation and background pre-ambling, it really doesn’t stop. Clearly Nolan didn’t want to produce some hurried, inconsequential account with all the usual shortcuts, footnotes and visual mishmashes, but a highly-detailed, definite narrative instead. The only problem with that being, it’s a hell of a lot for people to try to absorb.

Though Rami Malek (who plays seemingly small-time research scientist David Hill) has even less screen time than he got as the Bond villain in ‘No Time to Die’, he has a major impact on proceedings. Likewise, the cameos of Gary Oldman (as the ill-informed and completely unsympathetic US President Harry S. Truman) and Tom Conti (as a much more understated personification of Albert Einstein than the exaggerated and garish caricatures seen in other films) are both admirable. As expected, Branagh’s part is well played, but (much like his Belgian one in the Hercule Poirot films) his attempt at a Scandinavian accent isn’t particularly good. 🙂

Murphy’s commitment to the role is beyond doubt, capturing Oppenheimer’s awkward aloof nature without making him too difficult for audiences to relate to. He lost a lot of weight purposely to give him the almost skeletal appearance that the role demanded. For me though, it is Downey Jr as the manipulating Strauss, driven by his own untethered personal ambitions, that provides most entertainment value. It’s good to see him taking on more substantial roles once again. Nolan’s film is a worthy addition to his impressive portfolio of work – and certain to get an array of accolades during the awards season next spring. Many journalists and reviewers already have Downey Jr as clear favourite for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

WIGWAM FliX Rating 4.9
Reviewer: Mike Green (August 2023)

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