Liar liar pants on fire
dir: Christopher Nolan
Oppenheimer is everything you expect from a Christopher Nolan film, right down to your ears bleeding because the sound is mixed so loud that you suspect he wants to deafen audiences worldwide just for shits and giggles, or to get back at us for not liking Tenet that much.
Or at least convince them that what they are lucky enough to be watching is the single most important film they’ve watched since the last Christopher Nolan film.
It’s hard to argue that it’s not an important story, in that whatever this Oppenheimer guy did, it changed the world and killed countless people. It changed the geopolitical order and ushered in the atomic age, which was, I guess, a good thing(?) This movie, which is three fucking hours long, makes the case that the man was brilliant, was an absolute pussyhound (I’m sorry, it’s a crass, anachronistic phrase, but I can’t think of a better modern equivalent), and he felt just terrible after helping bring atomic weapons into the world.
At the very least he felt quite conflicted. Ambivalent, even.
Three hours…three fucking hours. I wish I could cleanly and decisively delineate those three hours into three distinct parts. I can’t, really. The whole movie flits back and forth between multiple time lines, because we all know the harshest insult Nolan fears is being called a basic bitch who makes chronologically linear movies with clear timelines.
Not for him. Not for Christopher Nolan. Nuh-huh.
There’s the past-past, (1920-30s) where he’s a chaotic, brilliant student at various institutions in the States and in Europe, though he can’t do experiments in the lab, or math. And he tries to murder a guy.
Then there’s the past-present (mid 1940s) when he’s either about to be working on the bomb, or is working on the bomb, and then there’s the past-present-future (1953-1954), which is after the bomb has been invented, and someone either has destroyed him or is trying to destroy him professionally.
Is the film really about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the modern American Prometheus, his achievements, his exploits and his sexploits? His hat? His blue eyes, his propensity for standing around with his hands on his hips? Smoking? Lots of smoking?
Well, yes, there are three hours to fill up.
But is it also, bizarrely, one could say, about someone who really hated Oppenheimer’s guts, who is trying to become the Secretary of Commerce in 1958, who is starting to find that everything he did against Oppenheimer is coming back to haunt him?
Well, yes, yes it is. What a bizarre framing device to come up with. I mean, honestly, who the fuck am I to tell someone else that their framing device, the lens they use to tell the story to us, the uneducated mouthbreathers sitting there deafened in the audience, is shitty? Nobody, that's who. But, wow, really?
I’ll stand by my remarks. I mean, I understand it’s a way of getting an Oscar for Robert Downey Jnr finally, who plays the guy who hates Oppenheimer’s guts, but really, could the flick not have been through the eyes of any of the other 1000 people in the movie? Thankfully, not told through the eyes of his girlfriend, or his wife, or his other girlfriends, because that would have been crass. But there were plenty of other options.
I think that this flick has most of the (white) male actors working today in it, at least for a few seconds each of screen time, but not to that much of an effect.
The setup, I would argue, is a familiar one to filmgoers, in that it’s reminiscent of how the alleged biopic Amadeus from back in the 80s, which seemed like it was Milos Forman’s flick about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was really a flick about a guy called Saliere who fucking hated Mozart’s guts for squandering his god given gifts. Who better to observe both the faults and the genius of a celebrated figure than someone who envies them to the point of destruction?
Oppenheimer’s Saliere, and Oppenheimer’s Saliere is a chap called Lewis Strauss (Downey Jnr), who at all times has a snippy, quacking like energy, perpetually feeling like he needs to be in control, and perpetually fearing like control is slipping through his grasp. When he meets Oppenheimer to offer him a position at Princeton, they immediately rub each other the wrong way, down to Strauss correcting Oppenheimer’s pronunciation of his surname, citing some kind of Southern affectation rather than the expected German pronunciation.
Oppy seems to have almost no regard for Strauss, but Strauss, at least at first, seems to be falling all over himself to ingratiate himself to Oppy.
But Oppenheimer is a man with a gaze that sees far beyond the horizon, through people, through matter itself. He is not to be distracted by the petty desires and machinations of a mere mortal.
But this is America, before, during and after the second World War. You will hear the word “communist” more times than in any Russian film from the Soviet era. You will hear the word “communism” used as a pejorative more times than in your first year of university, when you briefly flirted with Marxist dialectical materialism. Oppenheimer is shown virtually drowning in communists, with many of his friends, family and colleagues either openly saying they’re communists or urging him to do things that would benefit Mother Russia, in the interests of global peace and harmony.
It’s…perplexing. We are shown so many scenes from a kangaroo court tribunal that sought to strip him of his security classification, where every relationship he’s had, everything he did or said, is scrutinised and handled in a completely biased and pre-determined manner, and this takes up more time in the film than anything else.
So much so that you start thinking that maybe it was important or something?
And it turns out that it isn’t?
The middle hour, mostly, is Los Alamos, Trinity, the two years of work involved in the Manhattan Project going from theory regarding how to build an atomic bomb, to actually building it. That middle hour is probably the best part of the movie. The first hour is baffling and irritating, with over-editing and painful musical stings designed to break our spirit. The second hour is what it is, and the third, well, it’s something else.
But the second hour is solid. It’s buttressed with a (somewhat) humorous performance from Matt Damon as an army general doing his best R. Lee Ermey impression as a surly boss trying to keep Oppenheimer in line and heard a bunch of scientists like the cats that they are.
He treats everyone, especially the great genius, with disdain, but he understands his capability, and wants to see to it giving him everything he needs in order to get to the bomb before the Germans do, and then before the Russians do. No-one really gives a damn about the Japanese. Everything in that middle hour is aimed at creating a feeling of tension like the outcome, being history, isn’t certain. And it works, damn well.
That first explosion is everything you assume it would be. I didn’t see it in IMAX, but it’s impressively done, for maximum impact.
And that’s when doubt starts to creep in. Though there was a bit of that previously, when one of the scientists theorises that there’s a more than zero chance that setting off such an explosion could kill all life on the planet, well, the eggheads have to think about it for a bit. There’s some fear there in their eyes where boundless hubris previously shone.
Eventually Oppy et al are reassured when someone does the math and it’s close enough to zero for them to ignore, or proceed.
We don’t see Nagasaki and Hiroshima. We didn’t need to see them. But now we know that Oppenheimer, to his core, dreads what he has brought into this world. Even as he is applauded as a hero, as a saviour, as a genius, as a great man of history, he has doubts.
The last, long-arse part of the film - It imagines that we’re so involved in the snippets we’ve seen in how terribly Oppenheimer was done dirty by Strauss, that we’re aching to see the result and that we’re also waiting to see Strauss get his comeuppance.
It is, for me, a vast over-estimation on Nolan’s part. At no stage during this three-hour film did I care about Strauss’s character, or whether he was going to succeed or not succeed in his various ambitions. I have difficulty imagining the person that would, even with Downey Jnr in the role.
It is kinda interesting to see how anti-communist hysteria infected people’s brains for so many decades, and how even people as brilliant as Oppenheimer and all these other genius scientists were genuinely naïve enough to think that if they shared nuclear secrets with the Russians and didn’t pursue even more destructive weapons that somehow they would protect the world from what they unleashed.
It could just have easily been called Oppenheimer: Brilliant People Doing Dumb Things Every Now and Then.
Speaking of which, it’s hard not to dislike what Nolan does with the only two prominent roles played by women in this flick. I think the world of Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt, but I don’t think either of them is well served by this script, Pugh especially, who has that awful, awful scene invoking the famous line of becoming Death, the destroyer of worlds pre-emptively.
It was on a par with other biopics where they have a character, like June Carter Cash, tell Johnny Cash “You all ain’t Walking the Line.” You know, like the name of the movie, and the song by Johnny Cash?
This is probably an important film, I have no idea. People seem to have enjoyed it. In the stupid argument that arose at the time, I would actually say I enjoyed Barbie more, but that’s just me. And I guess that two of the biggest films of the year were so different but talked about some pretty big ideas.
It is also, unfortunately, a very self-important film. It insists upon itself, all the fucking time. Cillian Murphy’s performance, the look, the voice he uses, all perfect. I have no doubt he will get all the awards, because biopics always trump anything else. It also has a stunning last line, with a surprising last set of images, of what he dreaded most, which is bracing and yet baffling in how it finishes the film.
It’s … strange, but not in a negative way, which is an odd thing to say. It’s not a flick I imagine sitting through ever again, but you never know. I could get stuck on a boat crossing the Atlantic, with only this flick to keep me company.
7 ways in which I think I enjoyed this film’s sequel, being Godzilla Minus One quite a bit more out of 10
“Why? How about because this is the most important fucking thing to ever happen in the history of the world!” – Nolan tells himself this every morning about his own movies - Oppenheimer