Oppenheimer Is the Best Film of 2023 So Far

Hello Interwebs! Oppenheimer blew me away, and I need to rave about it some. It’s the best movie I’ve seen this year, and an all-time great for Christopher Nolan!

Oppenheimer is a biopic for famed scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer: head of The Manhattan Project, “Father of the Bomb”, and all-around controversial historical figure. This story explores the mind behind the atom bomb and his struggles, personal and professional, during its development.

Oppenheimer hooked me instantly with a textual comparison to the myth of Prometheus– the man who stole fire from the gods and was tortured for eternity for his crime. He offered humanity something for which it was not ready. Fire both allowed humanity to thrive, and unlocked our potential for unimaginable destruction. Oppenheimer is painted as “The American Prometheus”, for gifting us powers beyond our belief. Yet the consequences for those powers are still unknown. Will we harness them to prosper, or destroy ourselves? Such are the questions Nolan sought to prompt.

But Nolan also refuses to give clear answers on the morality of the Manhattan project. The use of atomic weapons was seen as forgone– and more of a race to the finish than a flight of fancy; Oppenheimer seemed to believe that people wouldn’t understand the power of nuclear weapons until somebody actually used one; and it was a good bet to end WW2 earlier than expected. Yet the weapon didn’t NEED to be used to end the war, its destructive capabilities were disgusting and shocking, and the weapon’s potential power could doom the world.

I understand both why Oppenheimer and co. wished to make the bomb, but also why many of them regretted their work. Though this too is explored with nuance. Oppenheimer’s spent the rest of his life communicating regret through action, though he voiced none. Because (as the film would have us believe), he seemed to feel atomic weapons were a necessary deterrent to war, yet abhorred their actual use. Case in point: he never publicly denounced his research yet actively worked to hamper progress on the H-Bomb.

Maybe this all sounds na├»ve of Oppenheimer, but a sense of naivete runs throughout his actions. Oppenheimer‘s professional and personal lives were marred by a lack of understanding the consequences for his actions till the damage was done. Yet few of his life’s decisions are blatantly good or bad. Every facet of Oppenheimer‘s execution was complex, handled with care– done in such a way that we UNDERSTAND him, if we can’t agree.

Nolan places us inside Oppenheimer’s beautiful brain through abstract imagery, which vaguely represents the chaotic nature of particles. I don’t understand how he created most of these shots sans CGI but I’m glad he did! ‘Cause the tactile feeling of the particle effects grounds the fantastical-sounding science in a way which communicates: I don’t necessarily understand these images, but they’re real, and I have the ability grasp them. This serves to place Oppenheimer and the audience on more common ground.

I must now dote upon Nolan’s general use of practical effects in Oppenheimer. The set designs are spectacular; the aforementioned “abstract imagery” is breathtaking; and the Trinity Test (first use of an atomic bomb) is suitably epic. The later is especially impressive, as they had to make a real explosion turn into a mushroom cloud.

I’ll zero in on those set-designs for a moment. They added character to every locale: from Los Alamos research rooms, to dwellings, to hearing rooms. Each area was distinctive, and well-realized. Never once was my immersion broken (CGI backgrounds tend to do that more than anything else, but their use was limited here, hence my mind remained focused).

I must also commend the costume design, in a similar vein. Of course there wasn’t any extravagant work, as most of the characters prefer subtle attire. Though each character maintains a distinctive style. Oppenheimer’s look especially (with the fedora) might easily become an iconic visage within the collective memory of Nolan’s works.

Cillian Murphy’s performance as Oppenheimer is magnetic in every scene. Oppenheimer seemed to be a man of self-confidence– but with a tortured soul which showed behind his eyes (specifically in his one famous 1960s interview). And who better to act with their eyes than Cillian Murphy! He manages to communicate a great deal about his subject’s mindset this way, though Oppenheimer was an emotionally reserved person. Those eyes pierce my soul. And Murphy’s voice is a perfect blend between soft-spoken and authoritative, with a resonance which commands attention.

Emily Blunt is just plain awesome as Katherine Oppenheimer. She had this ability to both silently blend into the background, and steal scenes once she spoke. Katherine, like her husband, is deeply flawed but feels like a real person. However, unlike Oppenheimer himself, Katherine isn’t afraid to acknowledge and call situations for what they are. Her blunt honesty makes for some of the film’s most compelling scenes.

Robert Downey Jr is unrecognizable as Lewis Strauss (chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission). And that’s not just ’cause his makeup is exceptional. Downey dares to do something I’ve never seen him do: be intentionally unlikable. Strauss’s petty, self-aggrandizing personality is grating in all the right ways. His story takes a while to take shape, but is effectively Oppenheimer‘s B-plot. And said plot is interesting enough that it could have been a biopic all on its own!

Though Strauss’s plot becomes more intriguing and twisty than it might have been, thanks to Nolan’s patented nonlinear storytelling. This structuring allows us (unfamiliar with the history) to figure out the context of Strauss’s story, one puzzle piece at a time. And such questions are integral to keeping us engaged throughout the film! Nolan wants us to be active viewers, and figure things out as we go (if you get confused then too bad– you’ll have to wait for explanations).

Of course this is a double-edged sword, because I had to watch Oppenheimer twice before I ACTUALLY understood what was happening (with the timelines specifically). Most of my first go-round was spent piecing together the narrative, while the second allowed me to concentrate more on said narrative. To be clear: I loved the film both times around– but less patient viewers may be frustrated on their first watch.

NOTE: Here’s a short-cut for you: Black and white scenes = “Present”/ Strauss’s perspective; Color scenes = “Past”/ Oppenheimer’s perspective. There’s a few exceptions to this rule, but that gives you the gist.

Another reason the plot is harder to follow than it ought to be is the poor audio balance. I won’t harp on this, ’cause fans of Nolan’s work are all too aware of this pattern. But the issues remain, though not so prevalent as in Tenet.

Oppenheimer‘s pacing is also breakneck! I don’t know if any scene lasted longer than a minute. The good news is that this style helps the 3 hour epic feel far shorter; the bad news is that you might feel exhausted by the end.

The film features great dialogue, which effectively builds character. It additionally doesn’t get bogged down in technobabble, yet conveys its ideas in ways which I could understand. There’s also a healthy dose of moral philosophy and incredible one-liners which hammer home the situation’s severity.

My only gripe (with character interactions) is with the romances, which Nolan treats coldly as ever. They’re more an intellectual curiosity than emotionally investing– so not bad, but not ideal for everyone. But this, once again, is a common occurrence in Nolan’s work.

This is the story of a man who used the building blocks of life in a way which could potentially destroy ALL life. It’s about moral compromise, the consequences for said compromise, and how one can live with themselves for those consequences. Oppenheimer‘s legacy hasn’t yet been written. He’s either the man who helped destroy all life on Earth, or the one who ensured our salvation (by means of restraint over mutually assured destruction). And we don’t know which he’ll turn out to be until it’s too late.

Oppenheimer is a thoroughly engrossing film which left me deeply invested. I’ve got my problems with the audio and pacing, but they don’t REALLY bother me all that much. ‘Cause I’ve thought about this film long after I first viewed it. This is the culmination of Christopher Nolan’s career, for better and worse, with all his flaws and strengths on full display.

Oppenheimer is my favourite film of the year thus far, and I insist it’s one to Watch A.S.A.P!


IN-DEPTH ANALYSES OF THE ABOVE ON THIS EPISODE OF CLOSE UP:

Do you think the Manhattan project saved the world through mutually assured destruction, or set humanity on course to doom itself? What did you think of Oppenheimer? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know.

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Till next time,

Joe Morin

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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