American President Harry S. Truman, who authorised the dropping of two nuclear weapons on Japan, once said - “If you can’t convince them, confuse them”.
If films are made to entertain and make money, then Nolan’s‘ Oppenheimer’ ticks all the boxes - it’s Hollywood entertainment, maybe not at its very best, but definitely entertaining. As for making money, at $80M in its opening weekend, it might be dwarfed by ‘Barbie’, but that was still double the estimate.
The Power of a Strong Cast and Central Theme
One of the key reasons ‘Oppenheimer’ is so entertaining is the calibre of the cast mixed with the central theme of the film - building the bomb. This film would have fallen at the first hurdle with a different leading actor - Hemsworth - Statham? And while Cillian Murphy is a tour de force, Robert Downey Jr. played Oppenheimer’s nemesis - Strauss - with equal potency.
An Overlong Film with Moments of Confusion
But at 181 minutes (yes, that’s over three hours), it was an hour too long, and that hour was filled with (sometimes badly written) sequences which served to confuse. President Harry S. Truman would have been proud of Nolan’s screenplay.
Lack of Clarity in Purpose
So, strip away all the Hollywood guff - which paradoxically is the best aspect of this movie and what remains is, well, just confusion. This film doesn’t really know what it wants to be. Is it the zeitgeist-grabbing issue of the day - that we’re all on a path to mass extinction from nuclear weapons? Is it a historical documentary? Is it an apology for Oppenheimer’s role in letting the nuclear spectre out of the bag? Is it the story of Oppenheimer’s life? What precisely is Nolan trying to say with this film?
Act II Shines, but Acts 1 and 3, Falter
Act II, of around 90 minutes, works - it’s the film we all expected. Oppenheimer builds the bomb: he grapples with his conscience, and the horrors of nuclear war are unleashed on two Japanese cities. If Nolan had written and filmed just that, then all would have been well - Hollywood ends World War II and searches America’s soul for having to make these weapons.
But Nolan couldn’t leave it there. He must have been suffering from what Greta Gerwig wasn’t worried about with ‘Barbie’ - ‘pop Director anxiety’. Nolan wanted to prove he could do more than just a Hollywood blockbuster. He wanted us to know that he could do it all: art, human relationships, history, sex - and therein lies the film’s fatal flaw. It doesn’t know what it is, and it tries to be all things to all people - a jack of all trades and a master of none. Acts 1 and 3 - are where all the ‘other stuff’ is force-fed into the production.
Act 1: Cliches and Confusion
Act 1 does its job of setting up the characters and the story world, but it’s full of cliches, and it jumps back and forth in time, which Nolan tries to simplify by using black and white to portray the historical elements, except it doesn’t, because it leaves us confused about which time setting we’re in. Not only are we confused, but some of the material is also low-grade. We have stock footage-like atoms flying around in the air, and the New Mexico horseback scenes are straight out of garish 1960s Panavision colouring - over-saturated and overwhelming.
And poor Florence Pugh (playing Jean Tatlock) is reduced to portraying nude, poorly simulated sex scenes, all placed to provide a guilt angle for Oppenheimer’s soul-searching later in the film. Pugh deserves much more from this role - the character, as written, did her acting skills no favours and reduced her to a mere object to engineer the plot.
Several members of the audience guffawed out loud as Oppenheimer has Murphy recite the original Sanskrit text of the Bhagavad Gita.“Now I become Death, the destroyer of worlds” during a sex scene with Pugh. Really? What was Nolan thinking of?
In fact, it’s not even clear that the real Oppenheimer uttered those words later at the Trinity test, but he used them during an interview for a 1965 NBC broadcast questioning the decision to drop the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So, uttering them mid-coitus?
Act 3: Ambiguity and Puzzlement
In Act 3 - we move on in time - the impossible has been achieved: the weapons have been produced and deployed, but now the movie slides back into confusion, and again we must examine Nolan’s motives for this. Was the test explosion not enough? Was he on a mission to save Oppenheimer from the McCarthyite accusations of being a Communist?
As a consequence, we have lots of quasi-court hearing sequences and Senate hearings, all of which examine Oppenheimer’s communist sympathies. It’s as if Nolan’s trying to emulate an Aaron Sorkin plot but jamming it all into 45 minutes at the end but lacking Sorkin’s writing skills. And poor Rami Malek, like Pugh, he’s reduced to a one-dimensional ‘shove-in’ to call out Lewis Strauss, who’s been out to get Oppenheimer from the start. Malek deserves better too.
Weak Depiction of the Zeitgeist
Finally, the zeitgeist arrives (connecting us with Putin’s nuclear war warnings) - except it’s a weak sequence of ICBM vapour trails shooting up through the clouds to destroy the planet. It’s visual but lacks impact: was that the best way of depicting the end of the world?
As Truman said, “if you can’t convince them.....”