REVIEW: ‘Oppenheimer’ is a strong message told in a flawed way

(Image: Universal Pictures)

Author’s note: Oppenheimer opened in South Korea on Aug. 15th. Additionally, this review discusses historical events which could be seen as spoilers for those of the film. This is the end of all spoiler warnings.

Beyond the untouched Genbaku Dome, the only building left standing after the bomb, you’d never guess that Hiroshima was once a wasteland. From Shukkei-en Garden and Hiroshima Castle, both restored to their original states, to the wavy sidewalks lined with flowers, Hiroshima is a testament to humanity’s ability to heal, while the acceptance of thousands of American tourists is a statement on forgiveness. The city’s main attraction – Peace Memorial Park – is a loving tribute to those not only lost in the bombing of the city but those affected by Japan’s own aggression prior to that bombing. Yet, beautiful as it is, there is a weighty melancholy throughout the park and all of Hiroshima. It’s as though the city itself wants the world to know that what happened there should never ever happen anywhere else.

In his book, The Road to Surrender, author Evan Thomas writes that Robert Oppenheimer believed the atomic bomb would be the end of all wars.

Divided into two distinct points of view, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer tells its story before and after the bomb. The before narrative, told mostly through the perspective of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), focuses on the rush to create an atomic weapon before the Nazi could and the thrill of their eventual success; the after portion, mixing the lenses of Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr,), focuses on the consequences of their rush and ultimate success. By jumping between the two, Nolan doesn’t have to wait until the end of the film, in some grand revelation, to demonstrate Oppenheimer’s sorrow over what he’d helped unleash upon the world. Like the real life people of the city he helped destroy, Nolan’s Oppenheimer carries himself as a warning of what should never ever happen again.

Fat boy and a little man. (Image: Universal Pictures)

While far from the director’s claim of having “no CGI shots” (to be fair, he may have meant no shots that are entirely CGI), the film looks amazing through its combination of practical and, let’s say, enhanced imagery. An early element of Oppenheimer’s unfocused scientific musings manifests as microscope-like shots of waves and particles which recall the chemicals, dyes, and smoke of Terrance Malick’s Tree of Life. Even on lower quality, non-IMAX screens the much vaunted largest explosion in cinema history is as spectacular in its blooms of orange fire and sparking sub-explosions as it is horrifying for what the audience knows it portends. Curiously, despite emphasizing the impact of this massive explosion by delaying its sounds before allowing it rush in with three separate shockwaves, the darkness of the pre-dawn background and lack of nearby elements removes any sense of scale from the effect itself. Maybe there would have been a difference in the movement and formation of the explosion but it seems as though Nolan could have filmed a small explosion with the same high definition cameras for the same effect. Nonetheless, creative use of computer augmentation allows later scenes to underscore the lingering terror of Oppenheimer’s experiment without ever resorting to the gruesome reality of nuclear weapons. Being a theoretical physicist, Oppenheimer himself doesn’t need to see the destruction to understand its depth. Being our view into this world, it’s fitting that we don’t either.

In 1914, HG Wells described the destruction caused by World War I as “the war to end all wars.”

Similarly, the music and sound effects are characteristically spectacular. Ludwig Göransson offers a score that emphasizes the narrow division between beauty and horror in the same way as the film’s giant fireball. Again keeping with Nolan tradition, the various sounds of imagined chemical reactions, rumblings, and booms are sharp and sudden and clear. Far better and the one place where Oppenheimer differs from Nolan’s recent offerings, we can actually understand what’s being said. Yay for clarity… at least when it comes to dialogue, we’ll deal with narrative later. A clear mix is especially important since Oppenheimer is mostly told through conversations, lectures, testimony, and narration. This approach works very well when dealing with the intricacies of then-fringe scientific theories, but less so when it comes to recalling one of two dozen scientists, all of them white guys more distinguishable by knowing which one is Josh Hartnett or Matt Damon or Jason Clarke or Casey Affleck or Dane DeHaan then by any memorable character traits. Nonetheless, the technical aspects of Oppenheimer are near flawless, even for those us who don’t live near theaters with the capacity to run the 11-mile long, 600 pound cut of the film.

I am become deaf. Destroyer of speakers. (Image: Universal Pictures)

One way in which Oppenheimer voluntarily breaks immersion is the extensive cast of “Oh, it’s that guy!” actors. Josh Hartnett, whose absence in recent years lets him look and sound very little like the rom-com favorite he’d been, is a particular standout, with Matt Damon being an effective addition and Gary Oldman stealing his one scene. Yet the film belongs to its two narrators. At first unrecognizable with hair and glasses like a black and white version of Giancarlo Esposito, Robert Downey Jr. tones down his usual playful charisma for a character that is even more internal than we first believe. The subtle changes in his physicality and expressions make it easy to see why Roger Ebert called him the best actor of his generation. Yet his role is little compared to that of Cillian Murphy, finally emerging from frequent Nolan supporter to lead. Far from the typically neurotic scientific genius of recent cinema, Murphy’s Oppenheimer is an arrogant, brash, womanizer whose veil of ego successful disguises the tortured existence underneath, only dropping his charade when safely tucked within his own mind. Less notable however are the film’s only female performers: Florence Pugh, who has little to do other than be naked, and Emily Blunt, who seems almost wasted in a role that’s mostly being wasted before two scenes of emotional heft. With how little they’re used, criticism of Oppenheimer‘s minimizing of its female characters is warranted, especially considering how much time is given to other elements.

In 1897, The New York Times wrote that Hiram Maxim’s invention, the machine gun, had such devastating effects that it would force nations to “give greater thought to the outcome of war before entering,” thus ending all wars.

After eleven films, it’s clear that Christopher Nolan is incapable of telling a straight-forward narrative. Even when the story has no need for it, as with Dunkirk, the director’s seeming obsession with time can’t be quelled. In the case of Oppenheimer, this tactic isn’t just unnecessary, it’s detrimental. Where the ticking clock of wars with both Germany and Japan provide stakes for most of the “before the bomb” narrative, little more than pride and prestige propel the “after the bomb” sequences. As a result, the entire third act drags. Worse yet, the eventual revelations of the Strauss narrative are so minor compared to the film’s other themes that it doesn’t justify our time or attention. Rather than focus on the chain reaction of the atomic bomb on weapons development and its creation of the Cold War, we’re forced into security clearances and congressional hearings that diminish the film’s implied message. It’s hard not to think that the film as a whole could’ve been strengthened by scraping the dual narrative structure, even if it means losing most of Downey’s performance, and instead focusing more intensely on Oppenheimer’s post-war life, viewing the success of his bomb and his failure to end wars. Or, better yet, devote this time to developing Pugh and Blunt’s characters.

One of the few scenes of a clothed Florence Pugh. (Image: Universal Pictures)

Wisely, Nolan begins by weaving elements of Oppenheimer’s proximity to the communist movement, progressed by every character of the film but most sharply by the women, building the film’s ultimate conflict from the first scene. It’s also in this undercurrent that we see how Oppenheimer could’ve fixed its greatest flaw. Beyond the idea of a weapon made to end war, the film’s irony is that a weapon developed by a capitalist country suspicious of its communist ally, and a weapon which would ultimately become the basis of an arms race which even now, 50 years later, still threatens the world, was developed by what was essentially a communist commune. Los Alamos, for all its faults, none of which fall within Oppenheimer’s perspective, is a city built by the government, maintained by the government, with no private property and jobs given to each scientist according to their ability and according to their needs. Perhaps if Nolan hadn’t been so consumed with cramming an unnecessary non-linear dual narrative into a straight forward biopic, he could have developed this there with many of the communist sympathizing scientists learning to oppose the town’s system, and the anti-communist government loving their results. Yet Nolan, like Oppenheimer, seems blind to the contradiction of his creation.

Robert Downey Jr is great in a role that made the film worse.
Image: Universal Pictures.

Located near the southern end of Peace Memorial Park, the Peace Memorial Museum opens into a large room with a reconstruction of the Genbaku Dome and walls lined with letters written addressed to the leaders of every country which has conducted a nuclear test. In these letters, the mayors of Hiroshima urge these countries to give up their development of these weapons. They write of the city’s immediate destruction, the people’s lingering pain, and the world’s fragile balance. So far there is no proof that any country has decided to give up their arsenal. Nonetheless, like Oppenheimer, these letters offer a mature and important message, one that can only be told through witnessing the horror of an atom bomb. A horror that should never, ever, happen again.

In 1951, Edward Teller, who worked under Robert Oppenheimer, developed the first thermonuclear bomb (also known as the hydrogen bomb). Today almost all nuclear weapons deployed use the Teller-Ulam design. None have yet succeeded in ending all wars.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.