For better or for worse, film has changed a lot over the years. Barbie confirms that audiences have come to enjoy the meta-humor-focused style as it has become more common, or at least when it is done well. But film enjoyers cannot live on meta-humor alone. Once in a while, it is good to vary your film diet and consume something a bit more serious. And everyone knows to find that savory flick, you need only ask Christopher Nolan to whip something up. Oppenheimer is his latest offering, a biopic on Robert J. Oppenheimer, the leading mind behind the atomic bomb. The movie has Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy, being questioned in a rigged private hearing regarding his government clearance, years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. It cuts between the grim hearing room and Oppenheimer’s dramatic past as he retells it.
Coming off of what many regard as his worst film, Nolan has returned with one of his best according to the public. The question is whether all the hype is justified. Nolan skeptics are beginning to surface, especially after Tenet, and Oppenheimer is Nolan’s first attempt at a biopic. It is safe to say Nolan did his research, basing the movie on the highly rated biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Much of the dialogue is also directly from transcripts of real hearings. Experts agree the film is generally very true to history, with only a few embellishments made. It is clear that his style as a director translates well into this type of film and the actors chosen give great performances. Every character sells their role completely, whether they are on screen for the whole movie or only for a minute. The highlights were certainly Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr.playing Strauss, a rival of Oppenheimer, but you would be hard-pressed to find any actor or actress that did not give their all.
All of this is good, but only if the movie itself is interesting. Luckily it is. In fact, interesting is probably the best way to describe it. Not every moment is the most exciting, and you might not fully understand the final act the first watch through- this is a Nolan movie after all– but Oppenheimer does not need an explosion every fifteen minutes to keep your attention. You may find yourself entranced by his story nonetheless. Nolan has a way of putting you into Oppenheimer’s shoes with his directing. The camera work, the shifts from monochromatic to color, and the incredible score from Ludwig Göransson make it hard not to become immersed. The film takes itself seriously and is unafraid to shamelessly blast the orchestral music and have Oppenheimer ponder the universe for a minute or two. Even high -stakes action movies tend to be more quippy than serious in recent times, so to see something grounded in reality, in real history, many may find to be refreshing. Others may not.
In an effort to keep a consistent mood, Oppenheimer has a few lighthearted scenes. On rare occasions, Oppenheimer can be serious even when the setting does not necessarily call for it. For instance, sneaking, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” into a sex scene. For many, it may succeed in keeping the film’s mood constant, but more skeptical viewers may not be able to take it seriously. Those viewers may be able to find ironic humor in these few moments and enjoy other aspects of the movie regardless.
Although Oppenheimer is quite fast-paced, it is still three hours long and complex. If you have not passed the bar or gotten your doctorate in nuclear physics, you might not understand everything, and being a biopic, Oppenheimer meets too many people to keep track of. The film is great, but it does not hold your hand. If you do not envision yourself getting much out of the history, the characters, or the acting that shape the film then it might not be for you. But Nolan has proven time and time again that you do not necessarily have to understand something in its entirety to enjoy it. The camerawork, score, and fast-paced progression of the film set a unique tone, creating a great experience whether you know what the hell is going on or not.
It is a visual and auditory spectacle of a movie, rich in history and ethical quandaries, decorated with a fantastic cast. So if you have the chance to see it, especially in theaters or in IMAX, do it. You may be surprised at how engrossed you can get in a movie on a subject you never thought would interest you.
Christopher Saam is a first-year Writing for Film, Television and Emerging Media major who will defend Christopher Nolan at any cost.