As a Tomatometer-approved film journalist, a film like Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer presents me with my greatest challenge. Oppenheimer is not a "rotten" film, though this is the designation I will inevitably assign it when I wrap up this review and hit the send button to submit to our dear friends at Rotten Tomatoes.
Let me say that again.
Oppenheimer is not a rotten film, a fact to which anyone with even a single moment of a cinematic background would testify. If nothing else, Nolan's technical prowess is undeniable even if I more often than not find him to be one of the most frustrating filmmakers alive.
However, I feel obligated to call Oppenheimer a rotten film because I simply cannot possibly recommend it. It's a decent film, maybe even a good film, crying out to be a truly great one and already assigned greatness because when it comes down to it Nolan knows how to awe us just enough that the dazzle outweighs the desperation.
Oppenheimer is not the film it could have been and should have been had Nolan checked his ego at the door, his artistic flourishes at the front gate, and if he had only enlisted someone to help him write the story he's trying so desperately to tell.
I've already accepted I will be in the minority here. Many are already pronouncing Oppenheimer to be one of the best films of the year. For me? It's not even the best film opening this weekend.
At a far too long running time of three hours practically on the dot, Oppenheimer is a sprawling techno-epic about J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the complex and conflicted father of the atomic bomb via the at the time secretive Manhattan Project. Nolan also writes here, though his story is at least inspired by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's American Prometheus. There are, rest assured, moments of absolute brilliance here. These moments make the overall experience of Oppenheimer all the more frustrating as Nolan lays down layer after layer, story after story but ends up with a film that feels like the Winchester mansion in Kentucky that ultimately goes lots of places and nowhere simultaneously.
The A-list cast here is for the most part terrific, led by Murphy's portrayal of Oppenheimer's icy demeanor and quiet brilliance. Murphy's the kind of actor who's seldom front-and-center in a film, though he's been a frequent collaborator of Nolan's in such films as The Dark Knight trilogy, Dunkirk, and Inception. As a man, Oppenheimer is not a particularly compelling character himself - it's his story that makes him compelling and despite Nolan's ability to make a compelling motion picture he has yet to figure out how to tell a compelling story.
Initially, the buzz was that Nolan was crafting Oppenheimer to be something resembling a horror film. It's not, of course. In fact, I'd say that Oppenheimer even falls short of being a thriller. It's certainly not a documentary. Ludwig Göransson's mind-fu**ing original score practically demands that we understand as much. Instead, Oppenheimer is more along the lines of a historic drama with obvious tragic elements.
The film is largely framed around three interweaving narratives - Oppenheimer's 1954 security hearing, 1959's Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) testimony at during a confirmation hearing for President Eisenhower's cabinet, and Oppenheimer's very precise passion for physics and perhaps not quite as obvious passion for temperamental women.
As is nearly always true in a Nolan picture, the women here are mostly secondary. Olivia Thirlby has a relatively brief but satisfying turn as Manhattan Project scientist Lilli Hornig, though both Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt are too often reduced to weepy and tired stereotypes. Oppenheimer starts off promisingly. There are scenes here that are most certainly among the best he's created to date, though eventually he begins to indulge himself and it's Ludwig Göransson's score that begins to express the emotions here that no one else dares to speak or feel or express in any other way.
If I wanted to go three hours without feeling any emotions, I'd go to my family reunion.
Still, it's the fact that Nolan is able to assemble such a remarkable ensemble with so many satisfying moments that makes it even more frustrating that Oppenheimer is so damn unsatisfying. Downey Jr. does some of his most satisfying work in years and reminds us what an incredibly fine actor he is as the cagey Strauss. Blunt manages to shine despite being woefully underdeveloped. David Dastmalchian is a scene-stealer for sure. The same could be said for David Krumholtz as Isidor Isaac Rabi. For my money, it's Matt Damon who really hits it out of the ballpark as Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves Jr.
Ultimately, however, where Oppenheimer really falls short is in its humanity and Nolan's complete avoidance of it. Nolan has never had a gift for bringing out the humanity within his stories, a fact that works in some films while falling dismally short in others. Oppenheimer desperately needs us to feel something about Oppenheimer the man - love? hate? I don't care what, but after three hours I didn't feel like I knew him any better and I was absolutely sure I didn't care. While Oppenheimer seems to be trying to present Oppenheimer as morally conflicted, that internal conflict never comes to life whether Nolan is serving up what feels like purely functional sexuality or brief, almost disrespectful, Japan references that fail to capture the magnitude of a humanity forever impacted by Oppenheimer's actions.
I have to say it again. Oppenheimer is not a rotten film though it's not the film it could have been and should have been. I'm also not convinced, not even one iota, that it's the film that Nolan intended to make.
If Greta Gerwig can manage to make a plastic doll feel human, why can't Nolan do the same for the father of the atomic bomb?
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic