peteg's blog - noise - movies - 2023 12 13 Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer (2023)

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Christopher Nolan's latest. Already #67 in the IMDB top-250 after less than six months and only half a million ratings; we'll see what the Academy thinks when the Oscar noms come out. It's lengthy and took me a few goes to get through.

Nolan likes making big movies about the big events in history, and here a great man of history. It's a bit less vapid than Interstellar and love functions less like a fifth element. Almost all of the physics of the first half of the Twentieth Century is elided beyond the worn-smooth snappy quotes, leaving us mostly with the politics and the personal. And the personal for Nolan is too often petty. It's a bit backward-looking like Mank, solidly retro-nostalgic like Asteroid City, The Fabelmans, Licorice Pizza and (going off what I've read) Barbie (etc).

The cast is stellar, well-chosen and mostly well-used; at times it seemed like Hollywood going to war again, like The Thin Red Line or The Longest Day (etc). Cillian Murphy does very well in the lead; I've always enjoyed his efforts and this one took me back to The Wind that Shakes the Barley. He gets to squeeze Communist Florence Pugh at UCB. Initially I couldn't believe Tom Conti was playing Einstein! — he looks so grumpy when we meet him, so out of sorts, but in later scenes he is effectively wry but not grim. One minor pleasure was seeing James Urbaniak as Kurt Gödel; a good choice but with too little time on screen. Time for a biopic! Matthew Modine is excellent (as always) as Vannevar Bush. Casey Affleck gets tasked with animating a White Russian. (I didn't know he'd been rehabilitated.) Rami Malek has a big scene later on. Gary Oldman's Harry Truman, well. Matt Damon: Leslie Groves. Jason Clarke goes fine as FBI interrogator/prosecutor Roger Robb with John Gowans's initially inert Ward Evans making me wonder if Statler died while waiting for the Muppets to lift their game. Benny Safdie got handed a gently, gently characterisation of Edward Teller and does it well enough but I would've preferred to be watching a followup to Uncut Gems.

And then we get to Robert Downey Jr's vengeful Lewis Strauss. He stars in the framing story, the one closest to present-time, which is essentially a reworking of Cold War tropes ala Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck. He can't quite sink into his character, can't quite suppress those ticks he've been living off for the past two decades or more; I mean, we've all seen Tropic Thunder, we know he's capable of high science, and yet here he is as a comatose ex-shoe salesman.

Given all these names we might ponder why the whole unwieldy mess doesn't cohere. I think it's about the missing historical figures; even those in the movie, like prime mover Vannevar Bush with his position in the deep state, are not given enough background. There's no Eisenhower and that's a bit critical for the whole thermonuclear program. But the absence creating a vacuum that could swallow suns is John von Neumann. Without him all we get is the naive geopolitics of the physicists (blood on our hands) and underexplored or childish motivations of the politicians (represented by Strauss and Truman). In many ways his balance-of-terror MAD strategy, grounded in his mathematical game theory, was the fundamental logic of the times since then; Kissinger's realpolitik was just a branding exercise. Adding this perspective would've stripped Oppenheimer's suggestion of sharing nuclear technology with the Soviets of its naivety and textured his opposition to Teller's thermonuclear dreams. Nolan could've shown the vector by which the bomb did (arguably) reduce the temperature of the Cold War but not engender universal peace. There is a gesture to RAND and, I think, a bit of casual plagiarism when Nolan has Oppenheimer suggest that the bomb be detonated in the air and not on the ground.

It's also hard to get excited by the last third — more-or-less courtroom dramas about Oppenheimer's security clearance and Strauss's cabinet position — after the big set piece of the second movement: the Trinity test at Los Alamos. (There are, of course, some nixie tubes counting down at 1h54m for some minor period-appropriate frisson.) Moreover the cinematographic innovations seem stale or useless: there's a Terminator 2-style fade to white to symbolise the death of the Los Alamos comity, and way too much cosmology when this is mostly about the atom. (Internalism is generally beyond Nolan I guess.) These were done better by James Cameron and Terrence Malick a while ago. I doubt that seeing it on the big screen would improve it much. I could really have done without the soundtrack.

Very widely reviewed, of course, and at similar lengths to the movie. A Critic's Pick of Manohla Dargis. I disagree with her on many points. Peter Bradshaw: antisemitism presented as a brutal fact, woven into the fabric of the film. Fred Kaplan on the historicity: yep, Oppenheimer would've liked to use the bomb on Germany. (I credit Nolan for communicating the disconcertion of the (European expat) scientists as the target becomes Japan.) Go see the BBC's Oppenheimer or read the books instead. Dana Stevens: flawed. A sausagefest. Luke Goodsell at the ABC — fedoras! The Twin Peaks reboot! A true-to-form three-hour trailer. Nolan's cinematic weapons of mass destruction have destroyed cinema. Jason Di Rosso also. Jake Wilson for the Smage: Downey Jr and Damon got to showboat the most. This movie, like the bomb, is also meant to blow us all away! Christos Tsiolkas: implosion! Biography v modern myth. Oppiemistress Flo and Oppiewife Emily Blunt were squandered with poorly written and directed characters (as for all women in Nolan flicks); it's a sausagefest. Anti intellectual. What Robert Altman could have done with Los Alamos! And so on. Much later David Thomson observes the confusion.