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(2023) *** 1/2 R
180 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Christopher Nolan. Cast: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Conti, Jason Clarke.

/content/films/5285/1.jpgSome filmmakers have the soul of a dramatist. Christopher Nolan has the soul of a theoretical physicist. Nolan has wrangled his way into the position of Hollywood's not-so-mad scientist, filling chalkboards with elaborate designs and manifesting them into idiosyncratic artworks that polarize audiences. Every film venture—and certainly every historical film—is, in a sense, a problem to be solved, making Nolan suitable (in some ways uniquely so) to will into being Oppenheimer, his epic reconstruction and deconstruction of the Manhattan Project and the man who organized it. With apparent empathy, Nolan correctly frames J. Robert Oppenheimer as a revolutionary striding beyond the cutting edge of his field. We watch Nolan's Oppenheimer ponder a Picasso, read "The Waste Land," listen to The Rite of Spring, talk of Freud and Marx as he pursues his "radical new approach to physics," while the director applies his own unconventional approach to—in both senses of the phrase—solving a problem like his protagonist.

That unconventional approach doesn't always ignite, but if nothing else, Oppenheimer represents a monumental achievement of verisimilitude. The film's "you are there" quality begins with the source material (Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's 2005 biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, adapted by Nolan himself) and extends to a staggeringly well-appointed ensemble of acting talent (led by Cillian Murphy in the title role), supported by perfection of production design (Ruth De Jong), art direction (Samantha Englender and Anthony D. Parrillo), and costuming (Ellen Mirojnick). Nolan employs a nonlinear narrative approach that primarily dramatizes Oppenheimer's path to the historic Trinity test of the first atomic bomb and its dramatic counterpoint: the 1954 closed-door hearing that resulted in Oppenheimer losing his national security clearance. As wonky as all this gets in its devilish details, Nolan mostly keeps his lines taut as he pulls the proceedings along for 180 minutes.

For a story predicated on scientific advancement, Oppenheimer shows surprisingly little interest in getting into those weeds. Nolan proves more interested in the byzantine organization and politics of the Manhattan Project and, ultimately, concerns himself with conscience far more than science. That's a sensible approach when dealing with arguably the most psychologically intense of historical protagonists, the man who infamously told Harry Truman, "Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands" (Gary Oldman conjures up Truman for the pithy Oval Office encounter). The film's emotional climax comes as Oppenheimer stands before bleachers of flag-waving enthusiasts as he awaits word of his creation's terrible destruction, his whole world coming unglued in real time and in public. Nolan achieves his best effects by yanking us out of his precise, literal storytelling and into unnerving expressionism, whether it be a solid object suddenly shuddering behind Oppenheimer's head or blown-out flashes evocative of atomic explosions.

Oppenheimer's head is a haunting place to be, and Murphy proves an ideal choice to invite us in. Murphy's alien eyes and gaunt frame have always set him apart from his movie-star peers, and while they work to great effect here, it's Murphy's innate ability to project brooding intellect and raw, wounded feeling that keep us watching, fascinated by Oppenheimer's brilliance, his arrogant capacity to be his own worst enemy, and ultimately his guilt-wracked devastation at opening the scariest Pandora's Box science has yet known. That we stand on the precipice of a new contender for that prize in the as-yet-unknown consequences of A.I. development handily provides Oppenheimer with timely resonance, as does the frightening notion that one existential threat (say, genocidal fascism) demands another (mutually assured destruction). The political skullduggery likewise demonstrates that the more things change, the more they stay the same. This half of the story largely belongs to Robert Downey Jr., who cannily plays the villain of the piece (Lewis Strauss of the Atomic Energy Commission) close to the vest, slowly revealing him to be a manipulator as bold as he is insecure in his seductions and Red-Scare demonizations.

The screenplay fills in enough of Oppenheimer's personal life to address his moral failings, the mystery of his personal contradictions, the self-justifications and dark nights of the soul of the "great man" who cannot afford self-doubt while in the process of achieving greatness (a fiercely wound Emily Blunt—as Oppenheimer's second wife Katherine—and Florence Pugh as Oppenheimer's whip-smart but emotionally disregulated paramour Jean Tatlock expertly embody the foils revealing the ground-level stakes of Oppenheimer's personal life). Nolan's narrative style can be choppy, and Oppenheimer at times plays out an entire scene in five seconds. Those moments lay bare how the writer-director can sometimes be too efficient for his own good (on the other hand, he could have trimmed a bit of redundancy out of the film's last act, as the hearings come to a head), while the poetic imagery that bookends the film's Promethean fire with shots of rain drops in a puddle or pond, rippling out like consequential shock waves—as well as some of the clunkier dialogue (Strauss wondering aloud, "How could this man who saw so much be so blind?")—will understandably strike some as trite. 

Nolan continues to attract an astonishing array of talent in front of and behind the camera, dedicatedly shooting on 65mm film (including with IMAX cameras) long after the industry as a whole succumbed to the relative cheapness and flexibility of digital. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema gets to cast worrying depths of shadow in both color and black and white, which Nolan employs along with changing hairstyles to acclimate us to when we are on the timeline, and to shift perspective from Oppenheimer's point of view to an objective one. The New Mexico landscapes of Oppenheimer's beloved Los Alamos add to the sense of scale, trumped only by the height and mechanics of the bomb test. Nolan's soundscapes, mumbly Method acting mixed with portentous music (here the stormy sound waves of Ludwig Göransson), can make for a muddy mix, but trust your ears to adjust in time. 

Despite his film having prestige written all over it, Nolan the theoretical cineaste has rewritten the rules of the prestige picture, and it remains to be seen if Nolan's knotty refusal to cough up a straightforward classical biopic will be his ticket to Oscar glory. More importantly to an industry in peril, Oppenheimer dares to imply with its summer release date that it's something of an intellectual blockbuster, a see-it-on-the-big-screen draw that's also as uncommercial as can be for those who've never heard of Letterboxd. But if Oppenheimer may be easier to admire than to love, that's alright. Faced with no simple task, Nolan devours a true story of great import, of the best and worst humanity can achieve, of nature and runaway human nature, of genius and small-mindedness.

[NOTE: Only 30 screens in the world—and just 19 in the U.S.—are screening Oppenheimer in Nolan'd preferred format: 70mm IMAX, projected from 11-mile long film prints. This critic's local screening was on one of those giant screens, at the AMC Metreon in San Francisco. It's worth the effort to seek out these special presentations, the ultimate payoff of Nolan's "see it on a big screen" agenda.]

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