Oppenheimer review: A dialogue-driven history study with frustrating Nolan-esque tropes

Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer
Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer. Pic credit: Universal Pictures

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer checks all the boxes for the distinguished director. The story involves a tortured hero navigating a problematic period, everyone wears tailor-made suits, and the women are highly depressed because of “men.” And just like Tenet and Interstellar, the film heavily dives deep into a segment of physics.

However, Oppenheimer is a creative shift for the filmmaker. The new film aims less for spectacle and more for dialogue-driven affairs.

Much like The Social Network, the WWII period drama unpacks the creation of a world-changing invention and the repercussions of unleashing a societal game changer.

Facebook might not be at the same level of “destroyer of worlds” as an atomic bomb, but it led to in-fighting and betrayal at the company. Nolan’s screenplay uses these ideas and then channels Aaron Sorkin’s class in screenwriting, finding the complex filmmaker exercising a film based entirely inside boardrooms, offices, and courtroom hearings. An extremely moody A Few Good Men, as it were.

The biopic is an adaptation of Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s biographic book, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The Pulitzer-winning book is said to be a detailed account of the historical figure’s problematic career as both a war hero and diplomatic target during the “Red Scare.”

For better or worse, Nolan’s script feels like a history lesson taught by a professor. The approach has a scholarly feel as we navigate different portions of Oppenheimer’s life in a non-linear fashion. Here, Nolan has three different narratives in rotation.

Oppenheimer’s non-linear narrative

The first is Oppenheimer, in his early days, hanging out at parties, with other like-minded acquaintances with shared principles, before being swept up to help the U.S. government fight the war against Nazis. In the early parts of the story, we meet Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), a real-life psychiatrist who represents the tragic Marion Cotillard persona for Nolan in this movie.

Emily Blunt portrays Oppy’s wife Kitty, a wife constantly in a state of melancholy because, well, husbands drive their wives mad in Nolan movies (Okay, and in real life too.) That said, Blunt has one of the best scenes of the entire film.

The second narrative involves a political figure named Lewis Straus (Robert Downey Jr.) Most of this narrative takes inspiration from Memento, using black and white schematics to remind us we are in Strauss’s story. One can also perceive this as Strauss’s worldview, a politician who sees no vibrancy in the world because of an unspoken bitterness.

Cillian Murphy and Matt Damon in Oppenheimer.
Cillian Murphy and Matt Damon in Oppenheimer. Pic credit: Universal Pictures

The third narrative involves a confrontational interrogation with J. Edgar Hoover’s men in a tight claustrophobic room brimmed with government officials. The reasons for the aggressive conversation slowly reveal themselves throughout a three-hour runtime.

The 70mm aesthetic vibes perfectly with the old-fashioned nature of the time period. As one expects, actors are draped in business attire, perfectly outfitted for civil duty as a reminder to the audience, “This is a serious movie.” Including fedoras, old-time cars, and stellar production design to invoke the ’40s, watching the 70mm print of the movie flash cigarette burns on the projection truly adds personality to the experience.

Hoyte Van Hoytema’s photography feels reminiscent of Minority Report in various places. The contrast is high, deepening shadows, sometimes isolating us from Oppenheimer. Other moments use shallow depth of field as a character, resulting in symbolic imagery of Oppenheimer’s guilt. The country is celebrating a victory, but he feels cut off from that emotion of success.

Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson returns to score Oppenheimer (after previously working on Tenet.) It’s a great score, but the only issue is that Göransson plays a familiar two-note progression that will remind some of Tenet. It’s not the same pitch or key, but it’s frustratingly similar.

The similarities do not end here. It’s clear why Nolan chose this story. As a director, the Inception filmmaker makes movies like he was born in the wrong time. He orchestrates his characters and personas as if they were all men from the 1950s carrying briefcases to the grocery store. The 1940s is a playground for the director.

His biggest flaw is the continuance of using stories (both fiction and non-fiction) where the female love interest has a death wish or inevitably dies. The tragic and distant female character was seen in The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, and Interstellar(if one considers the wife dying before the film begins.) Even Memento had a subplot involving a wife killing herself by proxy of Stephen Tobolowsky overmedicating her. This writer would love to see Nolan challenge himself and write a female lead who hopefully survives the movie.

Familiarity aside, the film is commanded by two magnificent performances. Cillian Murphy has never been better in the role of Oppenheimer. His performance is layered and thick, and he communicates the historical figure’s troubled nature with so little. Many sequences require Murphy to balance Nolan’s high-brow dialogue with complex emotion. Several scenes have Murphy sitting on a couch, smoking a cigarette, waiting for his turn to speak. In these moments, he looks ready to detonate on his detractors, but it’s beneath the surface.

Robert Downey Jr. is almost guaranteed to achieve a Best Supporting Actor nomination. The personality is far removed from Iron Man. Strauss is not a lovable jerk like Mr. Stark. Those who are aware of the story of Lewis Strauss will understand. It’s a role Downey Jr. has needed since becoming Marvel’s greatest weapon in 2008.

A dialogue-driven history study with frustrating Nolan-esque tropes

But we must reiterate Oppenheimer is not a popcorn-style blockbuster. Nolan’s biopic is not a complex wonderous spectacle like Tenet, Inception, or even a war movie like Dunkirk. Oppenheimer is Nolan attempting an Aaron Sorkin movie on the largest canvas possible, using his greatest strengths and worst impulses.

The recreation of the nuclear blast is a spectacle to behold and will haunt audiences after witnessing Nolan’s depiction of the test. Beyond the explosive sequence, the movie is conversational warfare, not actual war. An admirable decision that is unfortunately slightly bogged down by using other tired tropes we have seen before.

For more reviews, check out our coverage of other movies such as Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One and Joy Ride.

Oppenheimer hits theaters tomorrow.

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