DAR Film Reviews: Oppenheimer
It’s been a year of first parts: the first part of Across the Spider-Verse, the first part of Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning - and now, the first part of Barbenheimer. The average moviegoer by now will likely be familiar with Christopher Nolan, director of The Prestige, Inception, the Dark Knight Trilogy, and Tenet, among others. While Oppenheimer, his latest, may not be enough to convert the most ardent naysayers, it should pleasantly surprise audiences, and will likely feature highly in many rankings of the director’s work.
Those who felt the likes of Dunkirk and Interstellar punished their patience and tested the integrity of their buttocks should rejoice. Oppenheimer moves with the pace and editing of a 90s Scorsese flick. Essentially one long montage - scenes overlap, intercut, disappear and re-emerge - the film will rarely give you time to check your watch. When it stops to breathe, the viewer won’t. Despite a substantial, three-hour long runtime, it feels brisk and concise.
In fact, it is possible to conclude that Nolan has been pulling his own Prestige: living his life as a filmmaker apparently without the desire or ability to make a movie with a competent sound mix. One could be forgiven for looking forward to a film whose maker’s trademarks have become barely audible dialogue and deafening explosions with barely repressed terror, particularly when that film is about heavily-accented scientists designing an atomic bomb. However, in his greatest trick yet, Nolan reveals it was a ruse all along. Dialogue is crystal clear throughout the film’s three hours and the rest of the mix is not only technically sound but artistically daring. One scene in particular could become iconic almost entirely because of its restraint in this respect.
What some might find alternately interesting or frustrating is Nolan’s lack of a thesis. Is Oppenheimer the man an all-American hero, a closet communist, an obtuse eccentric, or some mix of all of them? Was the dropping of the bomb morally justifiable? What are the hard and fast facts? The film declines to answer. That’s not to say it’s uninterested. Instead, it presents the evidence and allows the viewer to decide (or, if they so choose, to hold many conflicting ideas in their head at once). Most historical films can only ever aspire to capture a tiny fragment of the truth, from a very particular perspective. Some may question Nolan’s unwillingness to make an argument; others may celebrate his wisdom in embracing ambiguity.
There are some choices that many viewers will find trite and overly conventional. These are balanced by some that are audacious - and darkly humorous. Dialogue can perhaps become overly glib. The form of the biopic is played with and - unusually for Nolan - the abstract is employed on a number of occasions.
What this all adds up to is a film that comfortably sits in the Nolan oeuvre - in terms of tone, form, and quality. Some aspects will have viewers rolling their eyes, others will have them catching their breath. It is a movie full of - and about - paradoxes and contradictions. History, philosophy and yes, even physics have more than one version. Much of what is here is to be expected - but it does not fail to surprise.
DAR Rating: 4/5