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MOVIES: Oppenheimer - Review

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Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer takes you inside the man himself as he changes history forever – like Dunkirk, it’s a war epic; but a different theatre, this is America – in the run-up to the launch of the nuclear bomb; the first and only time it has been deployed in warfare. It’s a character study, but more than that – it’s a portrayal of one man brought under the spotlight of America trying to exorcise all their sins on one man – out of sight, out of mind, dragging the father of the atomic bomb’s reputation into dust so they have someone to blame for the guilt of their own actions.

Oppenheimer’s story starts with him as a youth; poisoning his professors and struggling to sleep. It’s a whirlwind of a biopic that breezes through his life with time unable to stay still even for a second: if you think this is formula; think again – Nolan finds himself thrust headfirst into an exploration of the characters with fantastic bravado as volatile as the bomb he is building itself. We know the stakes going in: there’s a small chance here that detonating the bomb could destroy not just key targets in Japan, but also the world.

The cynicism and cold-blooded ruthlessness of the United States is on display here as the film wrestles with the choice: should your lead make “good” choices that fit your moral views? And then throws them out of the window. Murphy, no stranger to playing morally dubious characters – transforms himself once again here for a fantastic take. He’s separate again from his roles as Jonathan Crane; the Scarecrow – and an entirely different character from Thomas Shelby. That’s not to say there aren’t flashes of Peaky Blinder territory when he puts on the proverbial hat; an aura of coolness can’t help but embrace him. But then again – this is Cillian Murphy we’re talking about here, one of the coolest actors currently working – and one of the best, too. He brings a tortured soul to life as we get to see Oppenheimer’s left wing politics explored in a film that fits in with Nolan’s prior worldview: remember The Dark Knight Rises? “There’s no money here to steal” / “Really, why are you people here?” He holds capitalism once again under the spotlight with the length that America goes to wipe its hands free of any past mistakes - such a telling indictment of America is that one of the cities spared from the bombing because a high-ranking officer went on holiday there.

The interrogation sequences that put Oppenheimer’s life on view in a kangaroo court are fantastic and unflinchingly nervy. The haunted and shallow face of “Oppie” makes the interrogation scenes where he’s put under the spotlight and held all the more answerable to America’s sins is claustrophobia at its peak, the sound design working magic here to create the drums of people’s feet sounding like war cries. They’re happy – they’ve just won the war. But to Oppenheimer – it’s a different story: the weight of his actions, heavy is the head – etc – and you see it take his toll. Nolan makes a choice to shoot much of the film in black and white and it’s visually stylish as ever; and never has his time jump scenes been more clearer. This is Nolan smart enough to avoid falling into the biopic structure to the point where it becomes redundant to call Oppenheimer a biopic; yes we see flashbacks to his early life and the exploration of his relationship with Florence Pugh’s Jean Tatlock, Oppenheimer himself played at all ages by Murphy showing his best range – but the main focus is on the creation of the atomic bomb and the scenes that followed; the interrogation sequence where Jason Clarke is allowed to let loose on Oppenheimer with all the fury of a rabid hound dog gives one of the best performances in the film.

Pugh and Blunt are fantastic – Blunt’s strongwilled anger from Kitty at Oppenheimer not standing up for himself is punctuated by her ability to make the hard choices: and the relationship is put through the wire: early on the Oppenheimers recognise that they can’t take care of their own son, and are forced to abandon him. They’re horrible people, Oppenheimer recognises – but horrible people, he’s told – wouldn’t be aware that they’re horrible people. Opposite the two there’s Robert Downey Jr, who is so slighted by a meeting between Oppenheimer and Einstein that he establishes a campaign to tear Oppenheimer down. It’s a clever structure to build the whole narrative around one scene between Oppenheimer and Einstein: even though Einstein isn’t part of the narrative for long, he’s one of the key players here.

It's a testament to Nolan’s ambition and craftsmanship that Oppenheimer is viewed as a summer blockbuster event and not a late-season Oscar movie. It’s triumphant. Record-smashing, his biggest non Batman opening. Heart-pounding and completely immersive we’ve had a summer of three hour movies and not a single one has felt like a three hour movie; a rare accomplishment: and a rallying cry that people want more big screen blockbusters to take risks and give them something new. The formula has gotten old. Oppenheimer manages to find a way to rip it up and start again. It has such a way of leaving you speechless that you can’t help but be compelled to watch it again, with Ludwig Göransson’s score being out of this world.

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