Oppenheimer Review | Nolan’s Most Human Story Yet

Written by: Siddhartha Krishnan | 6 Min Read

Oppenheimer is the furthest, in my opinion, that Christopher Nolan has traveled from his comfort zone. The film is an amalgamation of genres—a biopic that has psycho-political undertones sufficient to qualify it as a thriller too. Whatever, genre we may choose to fit the film into, it is undoubtedly Nolan’s most human story yet. In making it, he may just have created his masterpiece.

While, there are several departures from Nolan’s earlier films; don’t be mislead into thinking that this film is not quintessentially ‘Nolanesque’. ‘Oppenheimer’ is not science fiction, even though there is a lot of science involved in building an atomic bomb. It is not futuristic; it’s historical drama mostly, but it does deliver a non-didactic message to the future. It is not action-packed and may not have a hero who is hell-bent to save the world. But it does have a scientist in a dilemma about his creation and its impact on humanity.

In short, it is a film about a man of great intellect who is believed to have changed our world forever. For good or bad, Nolan doesn’t give these answers. What he poses instead, are questions.

Lead actor, Cillian Murphy in an interview with film critic Sucharita Tyagi, mentions reading the Gita in preparation for the role, and says that Robert Oppenheimer could have found consolation in the sacred text and the infamous lines, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds“. While it is debatable whether these lines were taken out of context by the scientist; by mentioning the incident, Cillian touches upon an important character trait—the confusion of Oppenheimer about the consequences of his creation. Nolan in another interview affirms, that this predicament of scientists’ vis-a-vis their creations inspired him to make this film. He further adds that the scientific community is comparing the splitting of the atom, to the creation of AI and calling it the ‘Oppenheimer moment’. This I believe is a decent starting point in trying to understand the film.

The film’s trailer may have done a disservice with respect to managing people’s expectations. A faction of the critics has opined that this is an anti-war film, that is not anti-war enough because it sanitizes the brutality that the bomb unleashed both on its target (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and its place of origin (Los Alamos). Another faction calls the film too long, that digresses into unnecessary territories without showing enough of the fireworks it had promised. To an audience that went in with preconceived notions about the film, these points will hold. However, the truth is that the film is not about the bomb. It is about Oppenheimer, as promised by its title.

Based on the book “American Prometheus – The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer“, the story is character-driven. Unlike Nolan’s earlier films, this film is not plot heavy. It is easier to understand, and the storytelling is simple and yet, intellectually challenging. Nolan has fun with timelines as always to make the sequences rousing. But the absence of an obsession with a novel subject, as we saw in Tenet or Inception, is a welcome change. There is scientific jargon thrown at you but very early on we realize that that is not what the film is about.

I went in for a 6:30 morning show in an IMAX theatre. It was the second Sunday after the film’s release in India and it was a full house. I believe that it is always best to go into a Nolan film not knowing what to expect. It is the best way to enjoy his films. That way the surprises he throws at you become more rewarding.

Here the novelty was watching exemplary acting performances on IMAX. If ever, pure acting required IMAX then this is it. For most parts, we see close-ups of actors, which means that they had no room to falter. But with a stellar cast as this one, the chances of faltering were minimal. However, most of the heavy lifting is done by the protagonist, Cillian Murphy. There is something about his face and eyes that is so unique. He can say so much without really saying it. This is a career-best performance from the actor who had been waiting for such a moment to show his full range.

Several scenes in the film are bound to linger in the minds of audiences. However, the sequence that encapsulated the essence of what the film was trying to achieve is the ‘victory speech scene’ after the successful testing of the bomb. I thought it perfectly captured the conflict in the mind of the protagonist—the elation, confusion, and exasperation. It is the climactic moment of the film in which ‘Oppie’ becomes a hero for his people, and a villain in his head. Noise and silence along with a dash of magic realism are used impeccably in this scene.

The same can be said of the much talked about ‘Trinity test scene’ when the bomb finally explodes in front of its creators. Here, I thought the director used noise and silence to explore more philosophical themes. There is silence when the bomb explodes and the aftermath i.e the rumbling and violent shaking is deliberately delayed as if to say, that it will take time for the inventors to fully understand the repercussions of their creation.

As in all of Nolan’s films the antagonist in ‘Oppenheimer’ is a formidable opponent. Robert Downey Jr plays the role of the vengeful, Lewis Strauss, a businessman and philanthropist, out to destroy Oppenheimer. His character arc is written brilliantly, and Robert Downey Jr delivers an assured, nuanced performance which is a highlight of the film.

In terms of screen time the rest of the cast, which includes A-list actors like Matt Damon, Gary Oldman, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Rami Malek, and Josh Hartnett play small but significant parts. If you’ve seen the post-release interviews of some of these actors, it is clear that their job was to play their role in the life of Oppenheimer. That’s it. And they do with absolute sincerity. Among them Emily Blunt as Oppie’s wife ‘Kitty’ and Matt Damon as ‘Gen. Les Groves’ stand out.

But it is the editing of ‘Oppenheimer’ which is truly a masterclass. It is deft and divine! Yes, it is a strength in all of Nolan’s films; given how he plays with time. But here there is an almost languid, poetic touch to it. Mind you, unlike Nolan’s previous films, this is not an action-packed film, and hence the scenes are not naturally stirring. They had to be cut intelligently to create that thrill without confusing audiences. Editor Jennifer Lame expertly stitches the different stages of Oppenheimer’s life in this non-linear narrative and the end product is mesmerizing.

I was content with what I saw that Sunday morning. And that contentment I noticed in the faces of people who left the theatre that day. There was pin-drop silence in the hall throughout the 3-hour run time, and that silence continued as we exited the hall.

Cinema, we know, is an art form. Perhaps the most collaborative one. It has a language of its own. And, just like other art forms its purpose is to tell a story, thereby evoking emotions within the audience consuming it. The language of cinema is distinct from the spoken word uttered by some of its most liked characters. Sadly, there are a handful of directors left who make an effort to preserve this language of cinema. Nolan is one of those rare directors who believes that his audience is intelligent.

With ‘Oppenheimer’ the maverick director goes into uncharted territories and paints his masterpiece. This in my opinion is that work that the great auteurs of the past, the likes of Ray and Kurosawa, will be proud of. They might just be giving Nolan a light applause from heaven.

Go watch it in a theatre. Preferably in IMAX.

IMDb rating – 8.6/10

My rating – 5/5

About the author –

Siddhartha Krishnan is the author of Two and a Half Rainbows – A Collection of Short Stories. He is also a passionate blogger, and on his website, www.whatsonsidsmind.com, you can find his travel diaries, food stories, book recommendations and movie reviews.

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