Movie review: A bomb and its fallout in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’

Directed by Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer is a dynamic work of dark, stately beauty that trembles with a disturbing shudder due to the eternal rupture of human history.

“Oppenheimer” is a frenzied three-hour immersion in the life of Manhattan Project mastermind J. It is placed between the impact of the revelation and the aftershocks.

In Nolan’s latest film, flames fill the frame and visions of subatomic particles fly across the screen, a montage of Oppenheimer’s own turbulent visions. But despite Oppenheimer’s enormity, it is Nolan’s most human-scale film and one of his greatest achievements.

The work is mostly told in close-ups, but even the towering details of IMAX 70mm fail to resolve Oppenheimer’s colossal paradox. He was described as a charming man with piercing blue eyes who became the father of the atomic bomb (Murphy has spade eyes), but he was also an advocate for America’s post-war campaign against proliferation and hydrogen bombs. Appeared as a conscience.

An original adaptation of Martin J. Sherwin and Kai Byrd’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 book, American Prometheus: The Triumphs and Tragedy of J. It overlaps with two moments several years later. .

In 1954, a thorough investigation into Oppenheimer’s left-wing politics by the McCarthy-era Atomic Energy Commission revoked his secrecy clearance. This, along with the Senate approval hearings for Atomic Energy Commission chairman and Oppenheimer’s secret nemesis, Louis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), provides the framework for “Oppenheimer.”

The dirty political intrigue in these hearings (the Strauss portion is shot in black and white) works like a vivid X-ray of Oppenheimer’s life. It is often a cruel and unfair interrogation, and Oppenheimer’s decisions and achievements are inevitably evaluated from a moral standpoint. “Who would want to justify his whole life?” someone wonders. For the makers of the world’s deadliest weapons, it’s a particularly complicated issue.

These separate timelines give Oppenheimer, dark and shadowy in the desert, a noir quality, bearing the name of a physicist who spent the first half of his life pursuing it squarely. (Nolan has stated that all his films are ultimately noir). The second half grappling with new science and the consequences of his gigantic, world-changing inventions.

“Oppenheimer” moves too quickly to draw any definite conclusions. Nolan plunges into the story at a breakneck pace, like reaching for an electron. From start to finish, “Oppenheimer” rings in dizzying frequencies, tracking Oppenheimer as a promising student in the then-developing field of quantum mechanics. “Can you hear the music, Robert?” asks senior Danish physicist Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh). Sure it can, but that doesn’t mean finding harmony.

Nolan’s last film was the time-traveling, palindrome-filled Tenet, but he may be the only filmmaker who could see a deep dive into quantum mechanics as a step down in complexity. But “Oppenheimer” is more interested in the expanding chemistry of the mind than in equations. Oppenheimer reads “The Wasteland” and considers modernist painting. He dabbled in the communist ideas of the time. (His mistress, Gene Tatlock, played impressively and tragically by Florence Pugh, is a Party member.) But he does not subscribe to a single principle. “I like little wiggly rooms,” says Oppenheimer.

For a filmmaker synonymous with grandiose architecture, such as the subconscious world (“Inception”) or psychology mapped to the expanses of the universe (“Interstellar”), “Oppenheimer” is more simply a reflection of its subject matter. It exists in rich imaginations and tormented minds. (The script was written in the first person.) Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema capture the inner workings of Oppenheimer with flashes of skyward images. His brilliance comes from his infinite thinking.

However, how much leeway Oppenheimer can afford depends on when war breaks out and he is tasked by Lieutenant General Leslie Groves Jr. (Matt Damon) to lead the race to defeat the Nazis with atomic bombs. becomes a more serious problem. . The rapid construction of Los Alamos on New Mexico’s white-sand mesa, a place Oppenheimer chose and holds personal meaning for Oppenheimer, also tends to culminate in Nolan’s blockbuster film sets. may not be so different from the construction of with a spectacular explosion.

There is something inherently nauseating about the spectacle that dramatizes the creation of weapons of mass destruction on the big screen, justified or not. Oppenheimer once called the atomic bomb “a weapon for aggressors” and said, “It has an inherent element of surprise and terror, just like fissionable nuclear weapons.” Indeed, a less imperialist filmmaker than Nolan, a filmmaker like Leviathan, a British director making an American epic, might have approached the subject differently.

But the responsibility of power has long been one of the main themes of Nolan’s work (remember the all-powerful surveillance machine in The Dark Knight). And “Oppenheimer” is preoccupied not only with the ethical difficulties of the Manhattan Project, but with every ethical difficulty Oppenheimer encounters. Big or small, they can all lead to valor or ruin. What makes “Oppenheimer” so unsettling is how indistinguishable one is from the other.

“Oppenheimer” is almost entirely true to the main character’s point of view, but there are an incredible number of faces in its three hours of film, all in exquisite detail. Best of all is Benny Safdie as H-bomb designer Edward Teller. Jason Clarke as brusque Special Counsel Roger Robb. Gary Oldman plays President Harry Truman. Alden Ehrenreich as Strauss’ aide. Macon Blair as Oppenheimer’s lawyer. Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer, the physicist’s wife.

But the greatest of them is Murphy. A regular in Nolan’s films, the actor has always managed to convey something more disturbing beneath his angular, angelic features. Oppenheimer here, however, is a charming character with contradictions: determined yet aloof, distant from the present, intelligent but blind.

An inevitable terror hangs over him and the film. The post-Hiroshima future is most echoed by the laments of the children who will grow up in that world. The Oppenheimer babies just cry.

There is a palpable and trembling sense that history will change inexorably when the Trinity Test is carried out in Los Alamos at a cost of approximately 4,000 labor and US$2 billion. How does Nolan perceive these sequences, the calm before the explosion? The disturbing, thunderous, flag-waving applause that welcomes Oppenheimer after the performance is a stunning and unforgettable blend of sound and image, terror and awe.

“Oppenheimer” still has a lot of work to do. Governments are encroaching on science and bringing many lessons to today’s extinction threat. Downey strides towards the heart of the film in his best performance in years. It could be argued that the film stalls here, relegating the global narrative to a monotonous closed-door hearing, preferring to legitimize Oppenheimer’s legacy rather than grapple with the more difficult issues of fallout. But “Oppenheimer” never strikes a balance or offensive between the wonder of human potential and the fear of not knowing what to do with it.

Released by Universal Pictures, Oppenheimer has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association for certain sexuality, nudity, and language. Running time: 180 minutes. 4 out of 4 stars.

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