A bombastic biopic about a bomb, Oppenheimer is a drama posing as an action-thriller. Is that a good thing? I… think so.
Clocking in at three hours long, Christopher Nolan’s opus about the father of the atomic bomb is certainly not for everyone–it’s long, it’s loud, and it’s arguably style over substance. But Nolan, as Nolan tends to do, has put a lot of meticulous effort into making Oppenheimer what it is: a mesmerizing achievement that nonetheless is not as good as many of his best-known movies.
Cillian Murphy gives a searing performance as the title character, a man driven by duty to his country–or perhaps moreso, fear of what the Nazis would do with atomic weaponry–and then destroyed by it. As great as Murphy is, though, you could make the argument that after three hours you still don’t really know the man all that well. After all, Nolan is much more fascinated by the editing and the score and the individuals and the A-list cameo performances than the meat. The meat of the man. The meat of the project.
Much of Oppenheimer’s three hours remain fixated on the man, and yet as Nolan jumps between different time periods and pieces together decades of history, you realize you’re being held at arm’s length. What makes this guy tick? What makes this fascinating guy so fascinating? I don’t know. Perhaps worse, Nolan misses the opportunity to bring to life the machinations of the Manhattan Project. Sure, we get to see some very smart scientists arguing with each other, but do you really get to see how the project progressed… how these men turned theory into practically and created the most dangerous weapon in the history of mankind?
It’s style over substance, folks, and anyone calling this a masterpiece better sit on that opinion for a few weeks or months and revisit.
And yet, Nolan does style extremely well. Much of Oppenheimer is riveting even though it’s most definitely a drama about people talking and one or two awkward sex scenes. The score by Ludwig Göransson swells every scene to a crescendo, and Nolan crafts every moment like it’s his last.
Most biopics are boring, and Oppenheimer isn’t. Nolan ignores convention and has created a biopic in the way that he creates all of his movies: large, momentous, and powerful. And for the most part, he pulls it off.
Oppenheimer is no masterpiece, but Nolan should be commended for what he has accomplished here. It may not be quite as deep as it appears to be, and one wonders what this movie could have been had he pulled back in a few sequences (the confirmation hearing would have landed much better had he just kept thing straightforward), but it’s a well-crafted and at times intense depiction of the creation of the atomic bomb. It’s more than explosive enough to be worth the price of admission.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.