'Oppenheimer' sets off a bomb
It is nigh on impossible to understand "Oppenheimer." A ph.d. in quantum physics might help a little. Intimate knowledge of governmental thuggery might advance comprehension a titbit. Having served in the armed forces or studied martial history means doodly-squat here.
Even having read Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin's biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, would barely crack open the curtains. Christopher Nolan based his script on that biography, but he depended on cliches to tell the story of Oppenheimer's development of the atom bomb.
The film is being marketed as biography, but the result is not so much about the genius who was Oppenheimer as it is about the rout between the physicist and Lewis Strauss, chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, over Oppenheimer's security clearance. Never heard of Strauss? He was an American businessman, a philanthropist, and a Secretary of Commerce under President Eisenhower. Easily half of "Oppenheimer" is mired in this fight (it's like finding that a film entitled "Elvis" is half about the Colonel or that a work called "Amadeus" is half about Salieri).
Robert Downey Jr. chews the scenery as Strauss in Nolan's nauseating close-ups. Cillian Murphy well plays Oppenheimer over decades. Emily Blunt defines Mrs. Oppenheimer as a termagant. Matt Damon, alone among the cast of thousands, appears natural as Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves. In cameos appear Tom Conti, Matthew Moline, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, and Gary Oldman. Florence Pugh provides the T&A. With international stars playing international roles, their accents are one more challenge to comprehension.
A bigger problem is Christopher Nolan's ego. Yes, he shot the film with an IMAX camera. Yes, he flipped color with black and white. Yes, the interstices explode. And, merciful heavens, the film is ear-drum-splittingly loud. But do those artsy-craftsy techniques make "Oppenheimer" a good film? Does this film extend Nolan's reputation as a "cerebral, often non-linear story-teller"?
Does it come close to Nolan's other films, the clever "Memento," the historical "Dunkirk," the science fictional "Interstellar," or "Inception"? "Oppenheimer" is chaotic -- but not the fun kind for teasing apart post-screening. "Oppenheimer" says less about the genius J. Robert Oppenheimer than about the wanna-be genius Christopher Nolan.