REVIEW: Oppenheimer is very much not the movie you might be expecting
Cillian Murphy is practically guaranteed a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance as J. Robert Oppenheimer.
It takes 45 minutes or so for Oppenheimer to get good. During that first act, writer/director Christopher Nolan's epic biopic of the "Father of the Atomic Bomb" feels more than a little off-balance.
Initially, it feels like scenes from a soppy genius movie - think A Beautiful Mind or The Theory of Everything - playing out in fast forward, with more than a few shots of Cillian Murphy spinning in a circle, looking up at the sky in awe. There were concerns that Nolan's first sex scene, here taking place between Oppenheimer and his first love Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), would be intercut with imagery of a nuclear explosion. Thankfully that doesn't happen, but what actually happens in the movie isn't much better.
It is only when the government, front by grumpy soldier Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), tasks Oppenheimer with creating the bomb before Germany beat them to the nuclear punch, that both Nolan and the movie as a whole truly finds its footing.
However, if you're thinking all of this will culminate with either the first successful test of the atomic weapon in the infamous Los Alamos testing site, or with the first use of the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you'd be wrong. These events happen, and there is still an entire hour left of the movie still to go. And it is in this final hour that, somehow, Oppenheimer gets even better...
Oppenheimer is filled with Nolan clichés
First things first, Murphy is practically guaranteed a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance here. The first time that a movie of this size and importance has been placed almost entirely on the Irish actor's shoulders, he more than rises to the occasion. Far more subtle than the emotional fireworks display that usually garner that Academy's attention, Murphy oscillates from introvert to egotistical to hounded, he is amazingly mercurial under a barely there surface of calm.
He's also surrounded by an incredible cast of actors in supporting roles, although some of those roles are written with more depth than others. On the one end, Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, the man who made Oppenheimer his personal nemesis, is phenomenal. As are Damon, Alden Ehrenreich, Josh Hartnett, Dane DeHaan... and even in smaller, almost single-scene roles, Gary Oldman and Rami Malek.
On the flip-side, and one of the biggest criticisms of Nolan's work to date, the actresses get short thrift. Pugh's character seems to exist solely to be fridged (look it up), while Olivia Thirlby initially shows up as a great scientist of her own regard, but soon becomes the front for those who don't believe in Oppenheimer's goals. The great Emily Blunt is, admittedly, given a little more to do, but not much.
This development of female characters is, at this stage, another Nolan Movie cliché, along with messing with the concept of time, and how the misuse of technology could be the end of us all. But another Nolan Movie cliché is to take what sounds like a fairly straightforward idea for a movie, and turning it into a nail-biting thriller.
That is also the case with Oppenheimer, as Nolan manages to cram three genres of movie into one. After that somewhat dodgy biopic-by-numbers in the first act, we then get the ticking clock thriller with the manufacturing of the bomb, but in the final third, we get a courtroom thriller. Yep, the entire final hour is dedicated to the fallout of Oppenheimer's creation, told across a number of competing judicial hearings.
And, again, that doesn't sound super exciting. But under Nolan's direction, with Ludwig Göransson's haunting score, and Hoyte Van Hoytema searing cinematography, matched with Jennifer Lame's ingenious editing, all paired with a duo of fantastic performances by Murphy and Downey Jr., these courtroom conversations will have you on the edge of your seat.
We don't know how he's done it, but Nolan truly has done it again.
Oppenheimer arrives in cinemas on Friday, 21 July.
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