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Monday 25 September 2023

Burl reviews Oppenheimer! (2023)


Bang boom and blast, it’s Burl, with a report on a big summer movie that I’ve only just gotten around to seeing, as opposed to the big summer movies I managed to see but haven’t yet reviewed! (I hope to review them for you soon, but who knows!) This is one of the biggest of the summer pictures, or at least one of the longest, and I’m sure by now you’ve figured out that I mean Oppenheimer!

Ha ha, as a casual WWII buff, I already knew the broad strokes of the story, and was aware that, after spearheading the logistics of the bomb-building and after the war was won and his utility exhausted, Oppenheimer was subsumed by the Red Scare business of the 50s, mostly, it seems, just to get him to shut up, and also for revenge! All of this is told fairly plainly in the film – we jump around a bit in time, as is the norm in a Christopher Nolan picture, but it seemed pretty straightforward biopic material to me!

Oppenheimer is played by the veteran zombiefighter and Irish-man Cillian Murphy from 28 Days Later, looking rather gaunt and zombielike himself! Ha ha, with his suit and hat and skeletal physique, he seems a pretty good candidate if they ever want to make the William S. Burroughs story! (Unless Peter Weller wants to do it, ha ha - maybe they could share the role!) We meet the titular atom-juggler as he’s testifying before some kind of panel we don’t yet understand, but we will many times return to this small, unprepossessing room to see more of what we soon understand to be a kangaroo court!

We flash back to Oppenheimer’s time at Cambridge, where he nearly kills first his tutor and then, accidentally, Niels Bohr (played with appeal and a fine Danish accent by Kenneth Branagh from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) by means of a poisoned apple! Then we get into some science madness and relationship wackiness, including a few nude-lady scenes which elicited a gasp from the woman sitting next to me! (Ha ha, is a perfectly tasteful sex scene really so shocking? Have we really sunk so far back into puritanism?) We also get into Oppenheimer’s politics a little bit, which were refreshingly similar to my own! And of course then mustachioed army man Leslie Groves, played sternly by Matt Damon from The Martian, shows up to enlist Oppenheimer into the Manhattan Project, and the race to build the biggest bomb in all the world is on! (Ha ha, but they prefer to call it a "gadget!")

Of course once the Trinity test is successful and the bomb carted off by the army, and Oppenheimer has qualms about the morality of it all, there’s still the third hour left in the picture, which is mainly back to the kangaroo court I mentioned before! We learn that an administrator and would-be Cabinet member called Strauss, played very well by Robert Downey Jr. from Weird Science and Due Date, has orchestrated Oppenheimer’s downfall because one time Oppenheimer was a wisenheimer and Strauss has never forgiven him for it!

We meet many, many characters in the course of all this, most of them played by familiar faces! Oppenheimer’s tart-tongued wife Kitty is played by Emily Blunt from Edge of Tomorrow; his emotionally disturbed girlfriend Jean Tatlock is Florence Pugh from Midsommar; Roger Robb, the bulldog prosecutor in the disciplinary panel scenes is played by gimlet-eyed Jason Clarke from Twilight (the Paul Newman one, not the vampire one); silver fox inventor Vannevar Bush is Matthew Modine from Full Metal Jacket; Strauss’s aide is Alden Ehrenreich from Stoker; a fellow called Borden, whom Strauss uses as ponyboy in his pursuit of Oppenheimer, is David Dastmalchian from the more recent Dune; a miraculous defender of Oppenheimer is played by Rami Malek from No Time to Die; and a presidential aide called Gordon Gray is Tony Goldwyn from Plane!

It’s a long picture, but made up mostly of short, often punchy scenes – ha ha, you can tell there was a very concerted effort to keep things moving to offset the inevitable criticisms that this really is mostly a movie about white guys endlessly talking in rooms! It can be difficult to keep track of who’s who and what their motivations are, but a general understanding is really all that’s required to discern the larger themes and narrative drive at work! And some the major concerns here include power and responsibility, and it seems to me the picture is proposing an inverse to Uncle Ben’s great maxim “With great power comes great responsibility!” Oppenheimer – and Oppenheimer, for that matter – asks whether that responsibility still applies when it turns out one doesn’t have much power after all! The conundrum torments our science bug, and is addressed directly in late-picture scenes featuring a no-nonsense Harry Truman, played by Gary Oldman of Track 29 fame, and, separately, an avuncular Professor Albert Einstein, impersonated here by Tom Conti from Reuben, Reuben!

Nolan provides some poetic visuals that are meant to spring from Oppenheimer’s imagination: here we have raindrops depicting the sort of atomic chain reactions he’s looking for in a bomb, or rather gadget; there, a trick effect dramatizing what might happen if the chain reaction simply didn’t stop! But these sometimes seem shoehorned in as sops to the audience, and, as with the deliberate punchiness of the scenes, the non-stop music attempting to wallpaper over the seams, and the declamatory quality of some of the dialogue, one can here and there see the popular-cinema pulleys, cogs, and wheels hard at work, more so than the director intends!

Still, it’s a real achievement, almost as much as it assumes itself to be, and the sheer volume of craft on display is nearly overwhelming! I’m glad this long, talky, science-minded picture was made and that it’s doing well, and I for one was consistently engaged! (My twelve year-old got pretty antsy after the Trinity test, however, ha ha!) There’s something marvellously old-fashioned about it even beyond its mid-century setting, and I’m going to give Oppenheimer three slatherings of a topical jelly!

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