"...one of the great movie events of this year"

Epic Biopic is a Likely Early Oscar Contender

(081023) Oppenheimer is an exciting biopic about the world-renowned scientist, Robert Oppenheimer who was known for playing dice with the universe. He developed the ideas that led to the development of the atomic bomb and headed the team that developed it. Although the film is one hundred and eighty minutes long, it is never boring or never feels overlong (unlike Beau is Afraid which could have been cut a bit). It is a high point in the career of writer/director Christopher Nolan who is usually excellent anyway, and it elevates everyone involved in the film. It was one of the two best American films I have seen this year, the other was Past Lives. It is hard for me to imagine any living director doing a better job adapting the source material than Nolan. Like Denis Villeneuve, he has a special knack for doing brilliant science based and/or sci-fi films. Perhaps only the late Stanley Kubrick could have done it better.

The film is at the center of a media phenomenon called Barbenheimer which has been discussed much online. The media made much of the fact that two blockbuster films that seemed like polar opposites. A light female focused fantasy film vs a heavy masculine centered dramatic biopic-both released in one day. This was one of the most transparent examples of counter programming I have seen. It caused some commentators to humorously dare viewers to see them both as double features which a surprising amount of people actually did.

Encouraged by the hype and advanced positive reviews the films proceeded to sell out many theatres and broke records for weekend attendance. As a result, Barbie (which in all fairness is a shorter movie so it can be shown more times) grossed over 200 million winning the rating competition while Oppenheimer grossed around a hundred a million. These huge box office returns occurred in just three days, causing cinemas to have the third highest grossing weekend ever. This is even more impressive because it happened in a year in which many expected blockbusters like
the Flash, The Haunted Mansion and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny either flopped or failed to perform as well as expected.

Oppenheimer has superb acting by the whole cast and a superior, totally involving script. The film was based on the well-regarded novel, "American Prometheus" by Kai Bird and Martin J, Sherwin. The title refers to the mythological figure that was punished by the Gods for bringing fire to mortals. In an analogous way, some believe that Oppenheimer also shared knowledge that humans were not mature or evolved enough to handle, Similar themes were explored in the Frankenstein and Day the Earth Stood Still films.

The film is ambitious and has a highly complex structure. The timeline jumps around between the physicist's school years, his work at Los Alamos, and his later security hearings, and it also includes an emotionally charged scene after atomic bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most of the film is shot in color and shows Oppenheimer’s perspective but there are also black and white scenes that are from the perspective of his friend eventually turned enemy-Lewis Strauss. The magnificent film also weaves together romantic liaisons, laboratory lectures, court room drama scenes, political intrigues and teaching sessions, and almost everything is riveting and involving.

Oppenheimer delves deeply into the scientific ideas behind the bomb, but the main theme is how politicians use and dispose of great people that help them after they no longer need them. This really happened to the title character as well as to many other historical figures such as Joan of Arc, Leon Trotsky and Thomas Pain, the latter was punished for being critical of religion by being buried in unconsecrated ground.

Cillian Murphy is completely believable playing the soft-spoken, restrained and but aloof lead character, a role which has almost nothing in common with the part he is best known for, Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders, who is brutal, loud, and street mart thug rather than bookish and soft spoken intellectual like Oppenheimer, He has also had many fruitful collaborations with director Christopher Nolan, playing Scarecrow in The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012), as well as important parts in
Inception (2010) and Dunkirk (2017.) One of his best but lesser-known performances was in Ken Loach’s in The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2007), the most Irish film in this very Irish actor’s resume. Murphy plays Oppenheimer as scientifically brilliant, but politically naïve. At one point someone correctly says of him,” How can anyone who knows so much be so blind?” This character trait opens the door to his persecution and partial downfall.

Oppenheimer is put in charge of the Manhattan Project whose purpose is to develop a functional atomic bomb before our enemies the Nazis and our then allies, the Russians, Things go smoothly at first largely because Jim Gordon is his boss. He’s a tough but fair commanding officer (played by a solemn and earnest Mat Damon) who lets the scientists bend the rules a little as long as they deliver. His biggest concern is that the info does not reach the Nazis through spies or traitors.

Robert Oppenheimer witnesses the Los Alamos blast (my dad in real life witnessed a bomb experiment which made the film even more relevant to me) where he delivers his most famous line: “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds,” Before that he said the same line in a more humorous setting during his first sexual encounter with his communist lover, Jean. She sees some writing in Sanskrit on the wall and she asks him to read it which he does as they start doing it suggesting that the power to kill can be intoxicating and arousing.

The quote which comes from the Bhagavad Gita is not as big of an exaggeration as you might think. Scientists speculated that the bomb could have caused a chain reaction that potentially could have led to the entire world being annihilated. The irreverent use of the line has gotten some criticism from Hindu audiences.
After the bombings, Robert is heralded as a savior of democracy and even gets his face on the cover of Time Magazine, but when he starts to support some left-wing causes, he gets into hot water with Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr in perhaps his finest role since Chaplin.) Straus is the chairman of the U.S Atomic Energy Commission who starts proceedings against Oppenheimer to take away his security clearance. The way the film depicts it Strauss was motivated to tear down Oppenheimer in order the help his own career and he also wanted to get revenge for Oppenheimer badmouthing him to Albert Einstein (which according to the film never happened), who is depicted almost as Robert’s patron saint in the film I (likeably played by the Scottish actor, Tom Conti)

If the film has a flaw, it is that the female characters are not very well developed. They are absent for most of the film then they show up in some integral scenes appearing seemingly out of nowhere. But since the film is already three hours, it cannot cover everything. But the women do figure prominently in the red scare sequences. One of the best scenes involves Oppenheimer’s steady, supportive wife, Katherine (masterfully played by Emily Blunt) who is suffering and looking worse for the wear steps outside her proscribed social role and shows some gumption when she forcefully pleads that her husband defend himself against enemies. Also, Robert’s fierier tempered and moody mistress, Jean (played by the Marvel U’s new Black Widow, Florence Pugh) who tried but failed to make Oppenheimer convert to communism has some great scenes in the second half of the film. Years after he got married and he split from her; she plays on his sympathy and demands that he console her when she is deeply depressed. They briefly rekindle their passionate physical relationship in a one-night stand which has terrible long-term repercussions later.

The film does not question the issue of whether it was necessary to drop the bombs to win the war and we never see the consequences from the Japanese side . A government official argues that if the bombs were not dropped the Americans would have had to do a ground invasion and many more American lives would have been unnecessarily lost, but some historians claimed that the war was basically over by then anyway. This topic was probably not explored because it would have taken away from the view of Oppenheimer as a blameless heroic martyr and the righteousness of the US military industrial complex. Viewers of the film should look at some alternate sources of info outside the book and film to get alternate views on the topic. For instance, an excellent Japanese film by Shohei Imamura, Black Rain (89) and the novel it was based on depict the horrific cost in human lives in a in a very graphic, honest, historically accurate, and powerful manner.

The character of Oppenheimer as he is depicted in the film is not without flaws. As I mentioned earlier, he cheats on his ever-faithful wife. Risks his career by associating with communists including his brother and releases his scientific info even though there is a small chance that it could cause a chain reaction that will annihilate the world. Then in the most controversial scene, Robert tries to poison a teacher with an apple. The real-life Oppenheimer’s grandson who was consulted for the film categorically denies that this ever happened and he has said that no one who knew him really believed that this was true.

Gary Oldman, one of cinema’s greatest character actors, practically steals the film in a delightful cameo as the brash and insensitive Harry Truman. When Oppenheimer laments all the blood that was on his hands Truman refers to him as a “Crybaby scientist,” and right then and there bars him from coming back to the White House showing he does not understand the full ramifications of what they did. This all went down a bit differently in real life and Truman actually waited to make his statement after Oppenheimer was gone.

The director, Christopher Nolan, is known for using 70-millimeter films which offers ten times the quality of resolution than a typical film. Oppenheimer was shot entirely on large format film stock combining Panavision 65 mm and Imax 65 mm then it was projected on 70 mm. The intricate screen detail is dazzling and it adds immeasurably to the film. The film gained lots of early press because Nolan made a deal that his film would be shown exclusively in all the IMAX theaters. This shortened the IMAX run of the new Mission Impossible sequel which put Tom Cruise on the warpath against Nolan, and he has been trying to make his case in public appearances, but it appears that Nolan has won.

It is very highly recommended that viewers see this film preferably at least one time on 70 millimeter or at least on digital IMAX (as I did) which offers much more depth on the top of the screen. But seeing it just once probably won’t allow you to absorb all its splendor and plot intricacies. Nolan should be commended for doing his part with this monumental film in firing a shot in the war to preserve serious big screen cinema. Much can happen between now and next year, but it almost certain that this film will get multiple Oscar nominations including best director, best film and, screenplay and/or perhaps best actor for Cillian Murphy and best supporting actor for Robert Downey Jr. It is one of the best-looking and sounding films of the year, and it should also get some technical nominations. And it will richly deserve all of its accolades and potential nominations. The release of this film is one of the great movie events of this year.

Note: The four-star rating is for the 70 mm and digital IMAX versions only. I’m not sure how the film would play on TV, but I suspect it would still vastly outclass most biopics.

Directed & Written by:    Christopher Nolan, screenplay adapted from the
 book "American Prometheus: The Triumph and
 Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer" by Kai Bird &
 Martin J, Sherwin
Starring:    Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon
Released:    07/21/23 (USA-wide)
Length:    180 minutes
Rating:    Rated R for some sexuality, nudity, and language
Available On:    At press time the film was playing at local

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to www.artinterviews.org and www.chicagopoetry.org. His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

Come to the next session of the Monthly Poetry Show on the first Saturday of every month at Tangible Books in Bridgeport from 7-9 at 3324 South Halsted hosted by Vittorio Carli.

August 12: special extra show featuring Janet Kuypers with Dave Gecic and Jerry Pendergast

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Review © 2023 Alternate Reality, Inc.


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