Christopher Nolan doesn’t do small. With each project, the filmmaker seems to double his ambitions, stretching his canvas wider than ever. On paper, Oppenheimer, a biopic of the famed theoretical physicist, sounds like a more modest endeavor after the globe-trotting time-bending Tenet. Yet this feels like Nolan’s most seismic film to date, a fire-and-brimstone epic, dripping with portent.
Nolan’s commitment to scale is also felt in its frankly indulgent 3-hour running time. This seems to stem from Nolan’s desire to seemingly squeeze two movies into one singular behemoth. On the one hand, we get a more-or-less straightforward biopic of Oppenheimer, his involvement in the creation of the hydrogen bomb, and his subsequent guilt. On the other, an Amadeus-esque film about Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss’ bitter resentment of the titular physicist and his role in the investigation into Oppenheimer’s communist ties.
Both of these strands would have made terrific, leaner films on their own, but by meshing them together, Nolan both bloats his film and diminishes the impact of each. For example, Strauss’ reasons for despising Oppenheimer aren’t fleshed out enough to convince. Nolan also drowns his movie with dialogue, which, as the film moves into its final act, can become exhausting to keep up with. Nolan’s movies have always been a little too talky, but this is the movie where this problem feels most prominent. Editor Jennifer Lame’s frenetic editing doesn’t help.
Composer Ludwig Göransson, reteaming with Nolan once again after Tenet, delivers a masterful score, one that is hugely responsible for the film’s ominous atmosphere. However, Nolan’s decision to lay the score beneath almost every scene reduces its overall power. It’s the moments of silence that really allow music to pack a punch.
Still, despite Oppenheimer’s flaws, this is one of Nolan’s boldest works and shows his evolution as a filmmaker. Never before (not even in the dream-hopping Inception) has the auteur allowed himself to be so abstract. Here, the director weaves in dark, impressionistic sequences that evoke the nightmarish style of David Lynch or even Nolan’s idol, Stanley Kubrick. Meanwhile, the much-anticipated depiction of the Trinity nuclear test delivers nail-biting tension and some astounding spectacle.
Cillian Murphy, a regular supporting actor in Nolan’s filmography, finally gets to be front and center. The Irish star delivers a superb performance, a nuanced portrayal of a man realizing his efforts to save the world may well result in its destruction. While the main supporting cast is uniformly excellent (in particular, a near-unrecognizable Downey Jr. as Strauss), the decision to stuff stars into even the smallest roles can be rather distracting, turning the movie into a game of spot-the-cameo.
Any film by Nolan is worth watching, and on the largest screen possible, but this falls victim to its own excess. One senses that given Nolan’s exalted reputation, no producer dared to tell him to trim the fat of his weighty screenplay. Less often is more.
A bloated, talky film… yet one that contains some of the strongest direction in Nolan’s filmography. This is bold, evocative, but, ultimately, overly indulgent filmmaking.