Oppenheimer ★★★½

At first I thought that if J. Robert Oppenheimer didn’t exist, Christopher Nolan would probably have been compelled to invent him. The exalted British filmmaker has long been fixated upon stories of haunted and potentially self-destructive men who sift through the source code of space-time in a desperate bid to understand the meaning of their own actions, and so the “father of the atomic bomb” — a theoretical physicist whose obsession with a twilight world hidden inside our own led to the birth of the modern age’s most biblical horrors — would seem to represent an uncannily perfect subject for the “Tenet” director’s next epic. And he is. In fact, Oppenheimer is so perversely well-suited to the Nolan treatment that I soon began to realize I had things backwards: Christopher Nolan only exists because men like J. Robert Oppenheimer invented him first.

Which isn’t to overstate the degree to which Nolan’s first biopic feels like some kind of grandiose self-portrait (even if the Manhattan Project sequences can seem broadly analogous to the filmmaking process, as large swaths of “Inception” and “The Prestige” did before them), nor to suggest that the director sees himself in the same regard as the man he describes in the “Oppenheimer” press notes as “the most important person who ever lived.” It’s also not to glibly conflate one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century with one of the most controversial figures on the r/Movies subreddit, even if the industry-changing success of “Batman Begins” surely inspired a “now I am become death” moment of Nolan’s very own.

It’s just to say that Nolan has always been fascinated by characters who are torn between the subatomic particles of personal agency and the vast cosmic forces of our universe, and J. Robert Oppenheimer was perhaps the first person who actually lived a version of the only story that Nolan has ever wanted to tell. So while Nolan’s first biopic may not be a self-portrait, it is an origin story of sorts, and also a devastating statement of purpose. It’s his “Empire of Light.” It’s his “Roma.” Most uncomfortably — and most unfavorably — it’s his “The Wind Rises.”

Oppenheimer’s reluctant obsession with engineering the deadliest weapon ever built — and the Promethean torture he received as a reward for such a terrible misuse of his genius — left behind the most awful proof that human beings are more infinite and unknowable than even the greatest mysteries of quantum mechanics. That paradox has gripped Nolan since the beginning. It’s given us the sight of Hugh Jackman staring at his own drowned body in a jar, and resulted in lines of dialogue like “Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.” The filmmaker’s previous attempts to make sense of it have taken him forwards in time and deep into the stars, and now — with a thunderously intimate character study that often unfolds like the loudest courtroom drama ever made — he’s tracing the ultimate puzzle back towards its source, or as close to its source as his own genius is able to take him.

That turns out to be very, very close, indeed, and yet also never quite close enough. While “Oppenheimer” invites you to stare at Cillian Murphy’s face in shallow-focus IMAX-sized close-ups for much of its three-hour runtime, it seldom offers serious insight as to what’s happening behind his marble-blue eyes, let alone the opportunity to see through them. The result is a movie that’s both singularly propulsive and frustratingly obtuse; an overwritten chamber piece that’s powered by the energy of a super-collider.

Paced like it was designed for interstellar travel, scripted with a degree of density that scientists once thought purely theoretical in nature, and shot with such large-format bombast that repetitive scenes (or at least Nolan-esque slices) of old politicians yelling at each other about expired security clearances hit with the same visceral impact as the 747 explosion in “Tenet,” “Oppenheimer” is nothing if not a biopic as only Christopher Nolan could make one. Indeed, it would seem like the ideal vehicle for Nolan’s career-long exploration into the black holes of the human condition — the last riddles of a terrifyingly understandable world. But the film suffers from an irreconcilable disconnect between form and function because, without the benefit of dream limbos and astral libraries, Nolan doesn’t know how to dramatize what he doesn’t know. The paradox that compelled him towards Oppenheimer is the same force that keeps his film at a distance.

~this review continues on IndieWire~

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