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  • Writer's pictureZachary Zanatta

"Oppenheimer" Review: An Atomic Blast of Nothing

In the slate of releases scheduled for 2023, Oppenheimer was more than a big deal. Its massive cast and even more massive director were just the tip of Oppenheimer’s hype iceberg. Christopher Nolan’s biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer was presented as the culmination of Nolan’s career unto this point. Nolan makes films of immense action centered around the figure of the lonely, shattered man, and the father of the atomic bomb was the perfect figure to serve as the apex of Nolan’s filmography. Along with that was Nolan’s cutting ties with Warner Brothers due to the theatrical mishandling of his last film, Tenet, which saw a simultaneous theatrical and streaming release. Nolan’s displeasure at Tenet’s release resulted in Universal building Oppenheimer’s release around the theatre experience with emphasis on the 70mm and IMAX experience. All this coupled with the same day release of Barbie primed Oppenheimer to be the cinematic event of the summer. My enthusiasm, however, did not match that of the general public.

I have never been a big Nolan fan. I appreciate his technical mastery of the cinematic craft, yet I struggle to connect on a deeper level to any of his works. I consider him to be a talented director, but one whose repertoire comes across to me as dry and shallow. So understandably, upon hearing Christopher Nolan would be writing and directing a historical biopic about a topic as dark and complex as the creation of the atomic bomb, I didn’t get my hopes up. But as the release date grew closer, I found my excitement growing. By the time I was sitting in the theatre waiting for the show to begin, I had done a complete 180, and I was now looking forward to Oppenheimer. I was ready for Nolan to grow past his character writing flaws and develop a film that truly defines his career as more than just an action filmmaker. And after 3 hours, to say I was disappointed would be an understatement.

While I believe Oppenheimer to be a hollow and messy experience, it does have its merits. Nolan continues to hone his technical abilities, and the results speak for themselves. The crowning sequence of the film is one of the most spectacular in Nolan’s 25-year career. His eye for spectacle is one of the strongest in Hollywood and his dedication to his craft is beyond admirable. The sequence in question is around 20 minutes and it uses every second. Its eventual catharsis of destruction and beauty is something that truly can only be captured by Nolan. His commitment to detail and dryness renders spectacle as something sublime. It pitches so hard into realism it becomes almost abstract within the landscape of cinema. The sequence is also aided by some incredible sound design, Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography, and Ludwig Goransson’s score. All three of those elements are the highlights of the entire film. It provides a rhythmic almost musical experience where destruction is rendered as an elemental dance. Structurally it mirrors Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, where the sound and images function in more of a montage tradition than a standard narrative. So as an experience, it’s a fascinating exercise. The thumping score that meshes with the crisp sound all scoring some of the most striking imagery of the year, if there’s anything I can give Oppenheimer, it is most certainly an audiovisual triumph.

Be that as it may, technical prowess alone cannot carry a film, and outside of impressive cinematic mastery, Oppenheimer falls apart.

One of Oppenheimer’s worst offenses is the worst part of any Nolan film, the character writing, particularly concerning the titular scientist. Oppenheimer is intended to come across as a conflicted character. His life is defined by moral conflicts concerning war, science, politics, love, and family, Oppenheimer is a mosaic of struggle. Nolan opts to portray these struggles as intentionally vague, but the effect is alienating rather than intriguing. Oppenheimer, the man, is fully realized. Each relationship, scientific achievement, decision, and struggle is explored with painstaking detail. However, Oppenheimer, the character, is non-existent. The reasoning behind any of his personal conflicts is nowhere to be found. The plot falls into place because that’s history, but it isn’t turned into a story. Oppenheimer’s relationships with the communist party, Jean, and his brother are key aspects of the film that never display the gravity they’re meant to possess. Nolan invites the audience to explore a complex character, but there’s nothing under the surface that warrants said exploration. As a character, Oppenheimer is simply a greatest hits compilation of the real scientist. The film doesn’t have anything to truly say about J. Robert Oppenheimer. After spending three hours with him I draw the same conclusions I would get from a Wikipedia article. Nolan takes the building blocks presented by Oppenheimer’s life but doesn’t draw a story from them. Nolan’s writing neglects meaningful character exploration. He attempts to draw depth from the situations the characters are in rather than the characters themselves. Nolan’s protagonists exist in a world, they don’t live in it, Oppenheimer is no different. Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer reacts to the volatile world with a thousand-yard stare, yet there’s no identity behind those eyes. As a biopic, it teaches the audience all about the wondrous science behind the destruction, but the complex emotion behind it is simply telegraphed without ever materializing. With a story as dense as that of the atomic bomb, Nolan’s typical “silent man with a problem” ends up collapsing any meaning behind the film. Emotional engagement is drawn from the film’s mirroring of real events, not from any modicum of cinematic practice. For me as an audience member, I expected more than a recreation of events, but Nolan tries to point me in the other direction. He expects the audience to be moved through events alone, without ever needing to develop a character, and for a film like Oppenheimer, that does not suffice.

Nolan’s realism also ends up shooting himself in the foot. The true story of Oppenheimer is one that demands respect and heft, but Nolan’s adherence to this drab atmosphere becomes exhausting. In an attempt to be bleak, the film becomes so self-serious it borders on parody. Nolan’s aversion to brevity is expected, but in this case, it leads to some truly baffling decisions. Multiple scenes are borderline comical yet are treated with utmost sincerity. While believing in your story is vital, it seems like Nolan insists upon himself. Scenes such as the one of Jean and Robert having sex in a courtroom is ridiculously out of place, but Nolan’s inclusion of it seems to argue that it’s vital to the story. It loses itself in its own bleakness and becomes out of touch. Moments like Albert Einstein emerging from the dark to dispense advice like Nick Fury in Iron Man are laughable, but Oppenheimer is a film that cannot see past itself. Every moment is engineered for maximum realism, but instead of reflecting reality, it becomes a tedious exercise of how truly out of touch a film can become.

However, Oppenheimer’s biggest flaw lies in its very subject matter. Much of my trepidation going into Oppenheimer was a result of Christopher Nolan dissecting a topic as devastating and terrifying as the use of the atomic bomb in the Second World War. And to me, my trepidation was extremely warranted. Oppenheimer is a film far too busy to do justice to any of its themes, let alone one like the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nolan’s approach to thematic storytelling is based in a very “tell don’t show” tradition. In films like The Dark Knight, it swiftly cuts through exposition so we can quicker experience massive action set pieces. But in Oppenheimer all it does is dilute any sense of thematic depth. It’s dialogue heavy, but the dialogue doesn’t further anything, it just introduces idea upon idea until it ends. Instead of delving into established themes, Oppenheimer introduces another one. Each idea is just 3 others in a trench coat, with none ever amounting to anything substantial. Everything simply happens because it must, not leaving space for the film to come to any conclusions or meaningful commentary. Its hollowness is buried in its busyness, masquerading pointless noise as profundity. What it ends up doing is constantly introducing a theme then immediately undercutting it. Politics, family, friends, religion, patriotism, sex, evil, war, all of these define the film, but nothing defines these themes. The more I find myself attempting to surmise meaning, the less I discover. For an action film, that’s fine, but for a film as heavy as Oppenheimer, that won’t fly.

The evil of Hiroshima is something once again commodified in Nolan’s thematic structure. Nolan mitigates the impact of the bombings to make room for his other ideas. The weight of these actions is then briefly explored in a handful of vignettes and the ending. It’s framed through a lens of Oppenheimer’s personal struggles with his hand in its creation, but also with the rest of his struggles. Nolan’s thematic stitching attempts to complicate the conflict of the bombings, but it completely undermines it. The death of millions is added to a file folder of “Oppenheimer’s problems” and it sits alongside issues like “nagging wife” and “being too smart”. To add dimension to this conflict by way of personal experience is compelling, but to Nolan, dimension is added by convoluting the subject. The tragedy of Hiroshima is contorted to fit into Nolan’s intellectual puzzle that strips it of dramatic heft and shaves off the difficult to swallow edges. Themes are made to fit with each other, not to develop meaningfully beyond the film. Is it cinematic? One could argue, yes. Is it artistic? I wouldn’t say so. It’s not a method of learning or understanding through an artistic lens, it’s a presentation of a real tragedy that favors being economic over being meaningful. The ending packs a punch, but I don’t credit that to the film. My knowledge of the Manhattan project increased, and my fear of nuclear destruction was rekindled, but the man behind the camera had nothing to do with that. As an independent artistic experience, Oppenheimer doesn’t offer anything unique or meaningful on the subject. It’s a faint repetition of reality in a glossy package.

While Oppenheimer seems to be a hit among critics and audiences alike, I myself am not caught up in the rapturous reception. To me, Oppenheimer is everything a modern blockbuster shouldn’t be. It demands to be taken seriously as an unmatched artistic achievement purely on face value. A big cast, IMAX, a legendary director, technical proficiency, and a larger-than-life subject does not make a masterpiece. Oppenheimer is a film that, for me, is propped up on toothpicks, but the minute I delve into it, it collapses. Nolan has made a film with a sturdy skeleton and nothing holding it together. It loudly exclaims meaning, demanding that it be deemed a masterpiece, but under the noise there is a deafening silence. A film that has a lot to talk about but nothing to say. Christopher Nolan seems to have it in his head that Oppenheimer was always destined to be his opus, and as a result didn’t bother to clean up or refine his style. The story of the atomic bomb is one that deserves attention, a historical landmark at the crossroads of science of morality. Oppenheimer is a film that takes a complex idea and films it, without ever doing anything more. Many have found themselves profoundly moved by Oppenheimer, so I wouldn’t say skip it, but for me, Oppenheimer is a three-hour whirlwind that rages as loud as it can but leaves the landscape unchanged.

PS: If you’re looking for films about the devastating effects of the atomic bombing on Japan, I recommend Grave of the Fireflies and Hiroshima Mon Amour, two brilliant films that tackle the idea with complexities and nuance that I didn’t see reflected in Oppenheimer.

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1 Comment

Jul 26, 2023

We can respectfully disagree. I feel a lot of the points you made about lack of depth or reasoning behind his struggles are depicted in some of those ‘out of place scenes’. Their out of place randomness was the point of how complex his mind was. I felt a complete struggle in the character as depicted in the film. The historical background/backdrop of the period during the end of WWII and the post war years were exemplified very well.

as for the gravity of Hiroshima itself, we can agree to disagree again, I believe the entirety of the last hour, plus the senate hearing and the opprnheimer committee were the magnitude of that event.

I‘be pretty much agreed with your…

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