Oppenheimer ★★★★

“Oppenheimer” stunned me. You could accuse it of being another tired great man or tortured genius narrative, but I think you’d be wrong. For one, Christopher Nolan wonders aloud if Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) even was a genius or merely a good organizer (it’s telling that we see Oppenheimer make very few discoveries, everyone is usually scientifically and mathematically ahead of him, yet he is continually capable of leveraging the appearance of his genius for the desired outcome). I’m also not sure the film actually sees him as a great man. In fact, I was often reminded of a class I took in college called Religious Ethics: The Dropping of the Atomic Bomb, and how this film articulates the broader crisis of conscious felt by many involved. 

A visceral Murphy walks a subtle line in his performance; we’re never quite sure if Oppenheimer did go through a crisis of conscious or is merely using the trial that envelops the entire movie as a launching pad to retool his legacy. That’s the complicated duality Murphy and Nolan play with, along with whether Oppenheimer was a martyr or a strategist, a humanitarian or a warmonger, a scientist or a politician. It can most often be seen in scenes where Oppenheimer must decide whether to take the right path or be politically expedient. He always opts for the latter, so much so that by the end, we shouldn’t be seeing him as a great man. As the cheeky reference to “The Waste Land” makes clear, though it is a different poem, he is the hollow man; he is the stuffed man. 

While the film finds focus in Oppenheimer, I also think it’s a mistake to think that it is myopically so. Though Nolan only directly acknowledges the actual toll the Japanese faced with the use of the atomic bomb, the beats of the bomb’s moral, physical, and political import—particularly if it was necessary or merely a flex of apathetic power disguised as strategy—is present throughout. That is to say, I don’t think you need direct talking points when the film, at every turn, is very clearly saying that this was a mistake and these white men were monsters who partook in large scale murder. That’s about as direct as you can get. 

Of course, this isn’t to say that Oppenheimer is a perfect movie. There are structural issues, no doubt. But as a person who’s always been sorta hit or miss on Nolan, this surprisingly hit in ways I did not foresee. And is balanced in its themes, viewpoints, and observations in a way that I think will bear out on repeated viewings.

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