Oppenheimer ★★

It’s amazing that Nolan can get a movie like this made—a three-hour biopic about one of the least inspirational subjects you could imagine, populated by stars but none of them appearing on the poster, pushed out into the prime of summer amid all manner of sequels and super-hero fare. On that level, it’s an amazing achievement, and I hope Nolan gets to do a dozen more like this.

But this movie is not good. It’s shockingly stilted, even mechanical in its delivery of exposition and its narrative momentum. For the first hour, it really just feels like robots showing up to deliver key story points before being deactivated; the characters seem to have no life outside of what’s on the screen, and none of the exposition feels the least bit elegant or artful. It’s extremely frustrating to watch.

At some point in the second hour Nolan begins to settle in though, and things start to feel more cohesive, though not by much. The problem with the second hour is the cavalcade of famous actors become a liability. Nolan is blessed with the ability to cast seemingly anyone, but there are so many recognizable faces here that it becomes a constant distraction, taking one out of the story repeatedly. I just don’t ever need to see Casey Affleck in a bit part, if at all.

The third hour tries to deliver some justice—if not real justice, then perhaps poetic justice—for the protagonist, but to do so Nolan begins to shove his many players to either a “good guys” side or a “bad guys” side. For a movie that seems committed to demonstrating the complexity of its subject matter, it’s disappointingly shallow about the nuance of the people around Oppenheimer. I was particularly galled by a single scene with Harry Truman (another celebrity bit part!) that casts him as a total dickhead—a characterization that has no basis in reality and is only meaningful in its usefulness to Nolan making some cheap points about Oppenheimer’s challenges.

I’m as surprised by anyone that I had such a rough reaction this film, being a consistent Nolan apologist for many years. I still genuinely believe that “Tenet” was a masterpiece! But I’m just amazed by how ineloquent this movie is. It perhaps shows that Nolan’s talents are best applied to spectacle; his feeling for the subtleties required for truly transcendent character stories is clearly meager.

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