Christopher Nolan is one of the most beloved and popular filmmakers of the 21st century. Oppenheimer was his first movie in nearly 3 years. Even then, Tenet came out in September of 2020, during the height of COVID-19. Meaning that most people didn’t get to watch it in theaters. You have to go back to 2017 for the last big theatrical release everyone could enjoy. 6 years is a long time. Combine that with subject matter as immense as Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb, and it’s understandable why this movie has had such a buzz about it.
Many people were ready to declare Oppenheimer a masterpiece before it even hit theaters, just from the trailer. Now that it’s here, is it any good? (You can see where I ranked it, here)
The good things about Oppenheimer
Obviously, Cillian Murphy’s performance is the beginning and the end of the conversation around Oppenheimer. He does such a tremendous job of making you feel like you’re in different stages of the story. Just from his body language and facial expressions, you know what era of the story is going on. He’s such a chameleon. And it’s the most any performance has ever reminded me of Daniel Day Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Not that I’m comparing the personality of the characters. Just the way in which Day Lewis spoke as Plainview and embodied the character in unique periods of life. There’s something about how Murphy speaks as Oppenheimer that had that same cadence and gravitas. (And the music sometimes sounded like music from TWBB).
Then Robert Downey Jr. also needs praise. I remember seeing some quote that he said he had to remember how to act after doing Marvel movies for so long. And, yeah, wow, what a difference. As good as he was at Tony Stark, he was essentially just Robert Downey Jr. in a Marvel movie. Here, he was a character. He was Lewis Strauss. You could have given me a whole movie of him and I’d have found it fascinating.
I really liked the first 30 minutes of the movie. It felt a bit more experimental, especially in the scenes of Oppeneheimer in school. The cross-cutting between his day to day life and his internal visions was cool. And the quick micro-narrative of him poisoning the apple only to wake up full of regret and run to correct his mistake (which encapsulates everything with the atomic bomb). That was nice. Once the movie settled into Oppenheimer at Berkeley, I thought it lost a lot of its momentum.
And that was basically all that I enjoyed. Even the cool physics visuals just had me thinking about Tree of Life and the creation of the universe sequence Malick did and how much more interesting that was because it’s actually built out. Same with 2001: A Space Odyssey. In comparison, Nolan’s feels like throat clearing or engine revving rather than something fully formed.
The bad things about Oppenheimer
I am on the record as not a huge fan of Christopher Nolan. I was. That run from Batman Begins through Inception had me fully aboard the Nolan train. I was the person telling everyone I knew they had to go see The Prestige in theaters. I was the person at Inception on opening night and gasping at the final top scene then going back the next day with friends so I could watch them gasp at the final top scene. I was all in.
Then The Dark Knight Rises came out and yuck. Then I didn’t love Interstellar. And Dunkirk was good but so Nolan. And that became the issue. I stopped finding all of Nolan’s stylistic preferences compelling. Or interesting. A lot of his movies became “cross cut between a few different scenes while cool music plays over the top and connects what’s going on, then bring it all together in a set piece.” Tenet is pretty much Nolan doing an impression of himself.
The thing that bothers me about Nolan is that I think his movies often feel like they’re saying and doing more than what they’re actually saying or doing. And that’s because of that cross-cutting technique. It makes you feel like so much is building, especially with the music. Then Nolan’s an absolute master at audience manipulation.
In Oppenheimer, Kitty (Emily Blunt) does almost nothing for 2 hours. She has a couple scenes where she flirts. A couple scenes where she’s drunk and distant. Then a couple scenes where she’s just kind of around. There’s no arc. There’s no development. There’s no depth or nuance. Then, out of nowhere, she has to give testimony at Oppenheimer’s security clearance hearing. Before her testimony, either Oppy’s lawyer or his friend, Rabi, question whether its smart to let her speak. Especially since things haven’t always been great between her and JRO. But J has faith. He says he knows he can count on her.
The function of that discussion is to tell the audience to worry about whether or not Kitty will do a good job or a bad job. It’s a maneuver. A manipulation. And, to be clear, that’s normal. Every story is a magic show that relies on sleight of hand and directing attention in order to pull a rabbit out of the hat and guess our card in a way we could have never imagined and make the Statue of Liberty disappear before our very eyes.
So we’re set-up via one character’s doubt and Oppenheimer’s faith. Kitty goes in. The prosecutor begins to grill her. She’s a bit rattled. A bit slow to respond. For a moment, we think she can’t handle this. Then the switch flips. She lights up and lights the prosecutor up. She’s sharp, witty, powerful, and shines in a brilliant way. Not on the character but the actor crushes the scene. It feels good because the prosecutor had been such a jerk. So dominating and overbearing. For Kitty to put him in his place—that’s satisfying. Not only that, she lived up to Oppenheimer’s belief in her. That’s also satisfying.
I guarantee that it will be a fan favorite scene. Some of you reading this are probably thinking, “Yeah, I love that.” I get it. I do.
I also liked it. And hated it.
What was Kitty’s story in this movie? We get a bit of backstory through exposition, in that she was married then divorced, then re-married, loved the guy, but he ran off to help communists in Spain and died. Married another guy just because. And then married Oppenheimer. Was she happy about that? Sad about that? Why was she suddenly an unfit mom to the point of them giving their kid away to a friend for what seemed like a few years? And was she then a better mom when she got the kid back? Or when they had a second kid? Did she like it more now? Was she less resentful of Oppenheimer’s working hours? Did they work through that? Had she always understood but couldn’t help but feeling bad about it for a while? What helped her feel better? Was she doing alright at Los Alamos? Or was drinking always an issue for her?
When she gives that testimony, we don’t care about her performance because we care about her character. That’s because we don’t really know her character. She’s completely underdeveloped. The reason we feel good about her sticking it to the prosecutor is simply because the prosecutor had been purposefully developed as a jerk. Anyone could have put him in his place and we’d be happy about it. You could sub in literally any other character in the movie and it would have had almost the same effect.
Her doing that doesn’t tell us anything more about her feelings as a wife or her love for J Robert. It doesn’t tell us anything more about Oppenheimer’s love for her and their relationship. We do get to see more of her, which is nice, but that only begs the question—where was that during the previous 2 hours? Why didn’t she get to say more? Do more? Be more?
“Because it’s a movie about Oppenheimer! Duh!” Yeah, and that was his wife. She’s a tremendously important part of his journey and psyche and a perfect foil to all the large-scale stuff he’s doing on the project. Developing Kitty and their relationship gives us more insight into the personal. Especially to some of what he had to sacrifice in order to achieve what he achieved.
I’m not saying the movie should have become a relationship drama. But in a 3 hour runtime, I don’t think we have more than 5 minutes of them really interacting.
It’s the same thing with Oppenheimer’s brother. There are multiple times Oppy asks Groves about bringing his brother to Los Alamos. And it’s denied because of his brother’s past communist ties. But we barely, barely, barely see Oppenheimer interact with his brother. And it’s not clear why JRO is even requesting him. Is it because he misses his family? Or because his brother could contribute to the project? If it’s the former, what would the brother provide that Kitty isn’t? Was JRO lonely? Lacking companionship? Were he and his brother even that close in the first place? And if it’s the latter, what possible thing could the brother provide that the greatest scientific minds in the world couldn’t? The project still went fine.
So it’s a moment that tells us Oppy was feeling somewhat vulnerable but that’s all that it is. This superficial bit of information that’s not developed before, during, or after.
The ugly things about Oppenheimer
The last hour of the movie was one of the most boring things I’ve ever seen in a theater.
It’s revealed that the security clearance hearing is part of Lewis Strauss’s effort to assassinate Oppeneheimer’s character. Don’t give him an audience, destroy him on the record, then release it to the public. It will ruin his public profile. Strauss specifically says that Oppenheimer loves an audience. We’re told that Oppy leaned into his fame as a means of protection and affecting policy. But we’re never really shown much of that fame or how he wields it. There’s the one hearing and the speech he gives immediately after the bomb. But it’s not like we’re seeing him on TV and really and truly soaking up the spotlight and thriving in the public eye. It’s something we’re told.
That means the whole “deny him the circus of a public hearing” is way less powerful. 99% of the movie is Oppenheimer in classrooms or small meetings or Los Alamos. Not as some huge celebrity public figure. It’s a side of his character and story we don’t get to experience much of. And we’re also talking about events in the 1950s. That’s not something most viewers experienced or know about. Getting to experience Oppenheimer the public figure would be a wonderful change of pace to the tone, energy, and mise-en-scene of Oppenheimer. It would make that third hour a lot more distinct from the previous two. Instead, it’s visually more of the same. Same color palette. Same settings. Different talking points but really still just a bunch of men arguing.
And, really, what’s the hearing for? Oppenheimer’s security clearance? Honestly, the film did a terrible job of explaining why it even mattered at that point. It’s been 10 years since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What was Oppenheimer doing with the security clearance? I’m not saying he didn’t need it. Just that we don’t know enough about what he was doing at that point to understand the relevance of the clearance. Would it mean he could no longer advise on the H-bomb? And he feared what would happen without his voice? But wouldn’t he still have a voice through his public profile?
To be fair, there is some mention about the cost of losing his security clearance. I’m not saying the movie skips attempting to establish why its’ important. Only that it was poorly handled. For something that takes up the last hour of the story, it should be absolutely clear to us why the continued access is necessary for him. Especially existentially speaking.
Then there’s the Lewis Strauss stuff. Again, Downey Jr. does a great job. But Nolan makes Strauss the main villain of the film. Oppenheimer is a complicated genius who created something awful but meant well and tries to redeem himself. While Strauss is just a selfish, self-centered jerk. There’s supposed to be this grudge between them, as Strauss believes Oppeneheimer poisoned scientists on him, starting with Einstein. But, like…what’s that matter to Strauss? How has that affected him? Then there’s the Atomic Energy Commission argument that’s also pretty anticlimactic And finally the isotopes thing. That’s also brief and not some huge anti-Strauss thing. Those things cause Strauss such immense grief that he attempts to destroy Oppenheimer?
I mean, I know it really happened. It’s just how Nolan went about it that did not work for me. I did not believe Strauss’s motivation. I understood it was happening and why it was happening. But I didn’t care a single bit about it and felt no investment.
The worst part of it all was the Senate Aide played by Alden Ehrenreich. Alden is awesome. I’m happy for him and always enjoy his performances. My issue isn’t with the actor but what Nolan had the character do. The aide goes from being on Strauss’ side to becoming an audience surrogate in relation to Strauss and Oppenheimer. The more Aide learns about Strauss’s treatment of J. Robert, the less respect he shows to Strauss and the more he defends Oppenheimer. At the very end, when Strauss loses the confirmation, the Aide even gives a snarky remark that kicks Strauss while he’s down. It makes the Aide a bit of an audience surrogate and gives him the same role that Kitty had in relation to the prosecutor. This person who was mean to the main character gets a comeuppance from someone other than the main character, allowing Oppenehimer to be the distant martyr and for the audience to indulge in this person saying what we wish someone would say.
It’s very manipulative and cheap and unearned. But it feels right.
I think about it in comparison to The Social Network. We spend that whole movie seeing Mark Zuckerberg struggle to connect with other people and lean into being selfish, arrogant, and vindictive. All of the backstory leads up to him in a room with his team of defense lawyers. They decide his unlikable character will turn off any jury so it’s best to settle all lawsuits. He then tries to hit on Rashida Jones. And she cuts him down to size. It’s the conclusion of a small arc that had spanned most of the movie. And Jones serves, much like Ehrenreich, as an audience surrogate who gets to say what we’re all thinking. It comes back to Zuckerberg’s likability. It’s the culmination of the film’s main theme. It works so well because it’s an actual payoff to everything the movie has developed up to that point.
While Oppenheimer fails to develop the Strauss/Oppenheimer dynamic in a meaningful way then has this random aide celebrating Strauss’s defeat on Oppenheimer’s behalf. Not because it makes sense. But because it will play well to viewers because we all like to see the villain get kicked while they’re down.
In professional wrestling, there are two main kinds of crowd reactions. Heat and pops. Villains, also known as heels, want heat. While heroes, the faces, want pops. The more a heel can get the audience to boo, the better they are at their job. Same with the faces and getting cheers. There’s a concept, though, of cheap heat and cheap pop. The simplest example is a face will praise the local sports team, while the heel says they’re a fan of the team’s rival. It works but it’s pretty lame unless it’s given some kind of unique spin. Kind of like when a public speaker starts a speech by saying, “How are we all doing today? I didn’t hear you. I said. How are we all doing today?!” The audience always responds more the second time. It works. But it’s cheap.
Nolan relies on cheap heat and cheap pops a bit too much for my taste. The first two hours of Oppenheimer he avoided relying on such tactics. But by the end he couldn’t resist and I hate that.