Cold, dark and brooding, Oppenheimer misses the mark when it comes to narrative drama. Christopher Nolan’s $100 million summer blockbuster explores the making of the atomic bomb, and America’s tumultuous attempts to come to terms with what it unleashed.
Over three long hours, Nolan time-hops between the 1920s through to the 1950s as American scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) develops the bomb and struggles with its moral and political fallout. Oppenheimer is brought on to the Manhattan Project by the US Army’s Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), and the story is woven with two complex love interests in Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt) and Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh).
Many of the post-war scenes centre on the jealousies and obsessions of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downie Jr.), chair of the US Atomic Energy Commission, as he seeks the Senate’s approval to join Eisenhower’s cabinet.
This is undoubtedly an all-star cast, but beyond the wry wit of Damon’s character, the ensemble inspired little feeling. Is this numbness an ingenious reflection of how most of us feel when trying to comprehend something so morally complex and shudderingly terrifying as nuclear weapons? That may be too generous.
The danger in biopics is that the meandering complexities of people’s real lives rarely lend themselves to excellent narrative cinema. By way of example, a line that jars most with the tone is when the President calls Oppenheimer a “cry-baby”. It felt limp and cheesy, yet a quick internet search later shows it is historically accurate that Truman said this. There’s an irony that if the best Hollywood writers were freed from the constraints of historical record, a more consistent tone could probably have kept the film on track.
Non-linear storytelling is Nolan’s bread and butter, but overall Oppenheimer’s sequencing leaves a lot to be desired. The fundamental flaw is the set-up of a rivalry between Oppenheimer and Strauss, where for much of the film it is not entirely clear what their conflict is even about.
The two main characters barely meet or interact on screen, leading to a frustrating absence of drama. Nolan has the skill to pull this off – he did so exquisitely with Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale’s rival characters in The Prestige – but he may have taken a time and space hop too far here, thawing any sense of friction between the characters.
Oppenheimer is packed with dialogue, but much of it is emotionally muted, faux scientific and essentially dull. Talking about science and showing how people work together in a lab might not sound like a winning recipe, but try telling that to the Oscar-winning writer of The Imitation Game, Graham Moore. The Imitation Game also uses flashbacks and flashforwards, but with a sense of purpose that makes the audience invest more in its main character.
Murphy’s Oppenheimer struggles to draw out the same emotion. Perhaps that is not surprising, given he is the father of the atomic bomb, but the lack of emotional connection to the main characters made it difficult to feel much when they faced tragedy or internal turmoil. Often cinema uses love or romance to help open up their main character, but in this Oppenheimer didn’t prioritise making the audience relate. Most of us aren’t so squishy and perfect as a Rom Com when falling in love, but most of us aren’t so grim and sad as Oppenheimer either.
The film is very America-centric, which may be a conscious choice given the themes of introspection (or lack of). When Oppenheimer is picturing the scenes of destruction caused by the dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he visualises them within an American lecture theatre. The Americanisation of trauma is reminiscent of the old Vietnam War films made in Hollywood, which can feel a little crass in our globalised world. The moral questioning could have been more powerful if the audience was confronted with the devastation in Japan itself.
Space to explore the moral dilemmas was denied to the audience, perhaps as a reflection of the self-denial that the main characters are experiencing. But while that allows the audience into Oppenheimer’s psyche, it does not necessarily make for compelling viewing. An interesting dynamic is the use of a black and white filter for the scenes furthest in the future, reflecting how the world had stepped backwards since the making of the bomb.
No audience member could walk away without being acutely aware that we live with the means for our own extinction. The themes of Oppenheimer are also timely as questions remain unanswered over who will regulate or control artificial intelligence.
A metaphor about getting carried away with our own abilities might be appropriate as Nolan indulges his love of gritty time-jumps at the expense of viewer satisfaction.