Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Oppenheimer (2023)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal here at Enuffa.com!  We're five weeks away from this year's awards ceremony, and coincidentally here's the fifth entry about one of this year's nominees....

The overwhelming favorite to take home the Best Picture trophy (and likely several others) this year is Christopher Nolan's epic biopic, Oppenheimer, chronicling the development and realization of one of the most important and terrible inventions of the 20th century, the atomic bomb.  Starring Cillian Murphy as the titular J. Robert Oppenheimer and a veritable who's who of a supporting cast, Nolan's three-hour opus is a cinematic tour-de-force, covering not only the American team's race to harness atomic weaponry before the Nazis did, but the far-reaching consequences of the bomb's World War II-ending implementation.

Murphy gives a career performance, playing Oppenheimer as a rather haughty but brilliant physicist whose political leanings are quite at odds with those of his imperialistic superiors in the war effort.  He understands that the atomic bomb is going to be invented, and that such a terrible power cannot fall into the hands of Hitler, but is also rightly haunted by the moral implications of such an innovation.  His opposite number is Rear Admiral and Atomic Energy Commission member Lewis Strauss, whose Machiavellian post-war plotting results in Oppenheimer's public disgrace once the government had gotten out of him what they needed.  Robert Downey is brilliant as this slimy, vindictive politician, quietly making moves to destroy the man who had made him look so foolish in front of the General Advisory Committee.  The third standout is Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer's wife Kitty, a sharp-witted free spirit who's able to see through the government's machinations and keeps Robert honest with himself.  
Surrounding the three leads, Nolan makes use of an all-star cast in such a way that the presence of known actors and faces becomes a sort of shorthand to discerning the dozens of auxiliary historical figures.  Matt Damon's General Leslie Groves strangely echoes his desperate performance as Dr. Mann in Interstellar.  A terse-faced Casey Affleck similarly calls back to his own intimidating turn in Interstellar, as the fervently anti-Communist military officer Boris Pash.  Florence Pugh taps into the same kind of psychological torment her Midsommar character Dani endured, as Oppenheimer's girlfriend Jean Tatlock.  The fact that so many recognizable actors play these characters to type amazingly serves to make the characters themselves more recognizable, rather than as a distraction.

True to trademark Christopher Nolan form, the director manages to make this chronicle of mostly dry political events from 80 years ago feel like a taut suspense thriller.  Our flawed, conflicted protagonist is tapped by the United States government to perform top secret research and then hung out to dry once his services are no longer required, in no small part because he publicly opposed further advancement in weapons of mass destruction.  Oppenheimer was the smartest one in the room but those in power only listened to him when it was convenient to achieving their ends, and his ultimately became a cautionary tale of humanity playing with dangerous knowledge.

Shot on a combination of 65mm and IMAX film, Oppenheimer bears plenty of the visual hallmarks of a Nolan picture but maintains a stunning level of intimacy uncommon for his filmography.  Replete with stunning closeups and sweeping establishing shots, the film also keeps up a frenetic pace in the editing, recalling the stream-of-consciousness feel of Oliver Stone's 1990s output like JFK and Nixon.  Multiple timelines are presented simultaneously, from Oppenheimer's youth to his atomic research to his feud with Strauss to Strauss's cabinet hearing during the Eisenhower administration, and somehow Nolan manages to present all these threads clearly, showing time not as a line but as a collage; think Dr. Manhattan's origin soliloquy in Watchmen.  An event in the 1940s ties into a conversation in the 50s, which references a moment in the 30s, and so forth.  

Oppenheimer is a fascinating character study and biopic, made very much outside the box and given edge-of-your-seat urgency and dramatic heft by one of this era's most surefooted and cerebral of filmmakers.

I give the film **** out of ****.

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