How I Came to Love ‘Oppenheimer’ and Still Detest the Bomb…
For every child born since just before the 1940s, the atomic bomb has shaped their lives in one way or the other. The bombs themselves accelerated an arms race, leading us into a cold war where an unhinged press of a button could bring on the destruction of the whole world — an outcome where should we were to survive, it would perhaps leave us in more dire straits than if we had been obliterated.
In his 1985 song ‘Russians’, Sting posits “How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy? There is no monopoly on common sense, On either side of the political fence.” His reference being, at the time, specific to the Cold War holds true still to this day. Christopher Nolan and Robert Downey Jr., the director and one of the stars of this summer’s box office smash ‘Oppenheimer’, have both alluded to the song at some length in a press tour interview, agreeing with Sting’s sentiment.
The atomic bombs which decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the 6th and 9th of August 1945, history tells us for the most part, is what ended World War II — although historians and researchers disagree, pointing to now clear historical indications that Japan was most likely on the verge of surrender after the fall of Nazi Germany.
The Americans were the architects of the bombs, with J Robert Oppenheimer leading the secretive efforts to, initially, “beat the Nazis” from being the first to develop nuclear weapons. ‘Oppenheimer’ focuses on his story, zeroing in on the events that lead up to the deployment of the atomic bomb and what happened to Oppenheimer in the aftermath.
The film does not have the time, nor the inclination, to dwell on the other, world reverberating sociopolitical implications, of the horrific act of annihilating largely civilian populations to essentially establish the US’s superior firepower — a superior firepower combined with the flawed intellect to deploy such weapons on largely non military targets that would cost those who were bombed not just in that moment but, due to the radiation, for decades to come.
However one underlying theme Oppenheimer, the man, seems to want to establish within the context of the film, is his hope that once the world is witness to the horror that such a weapon poses, the race to develop even deadlier arms will cease, leading to a peace, and self realisation, the human race have never experienced before.
A narrative caveat established early in the film proposes that, while ‘Oppenheimer’ is a biopic, the “narrator” might not be entirely reliable and that events have indeed been dramatised or fictionalised for effect. The point in question involves one of the protagonist’s professors whereby the filmmakers create a “heightened” reality, or more possibly a flourish of the imaginations of the writers, to add some dark humour and drama to the mix — this moment works well and plays out over two consecutive scenes signalling early on that all of the film is not exactly true to life. Nolan uses black & white, and colour scenes to differentiate events that are from Oppenheimer’s subjective view and those that are more objective and informed by the public record and varying other points of view.
Multiple familiar faces deliver perhaps some of their career best work and yet there are still standout performances in the film. Cillian Murphy has always been an exceptional talent, and in a sea of brilliant performances this might be his best yet; while Robert Downey Jr. dials in with an intensity that we have not been witness to since perhaps his turn as Chaplin.
The score, by Ludwig Göransson, makes great work of conveying the fervour that is Oppenheimer’s state of mind and is near perfect at all times — though an argument could be made that some cues intrude on a few of the quieter scenes. The sound design is excellent throughout; especially leading up to, and in the aftermath of, the Trinity Test where Oppenheimer’s team demonstrates successfully that their bomb does indeed work.
The detail in the production design, which the director has used time and again throughout a majority of his films to establish and ground his narrative universes, is unsurprisingly well attended to again; this time by Ruth De Jong.
The “no special effects” edict seems to have held the film in good stead in the scenes where Oppenheimer’s abstract “vision” is rendered to the audience as images representative of waveforms and colliding bodies. However the explosions during the Trinity Test specifically seem to have been executed in miniature and do not produce nearly the awe that one might expect from a studio tentpole in 2023 — which isn’t necessarily a negative as Nolan’s intent seems to be to focus on Oppenheimer as the “explosive element” in the film. Explosions aside, the miniature work is executed impeccably.
There may clearly be an argument to be made against using the IMAX format to shoot a mostly “talking heads” film with no special effects, but cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s enthralling camera work, which almost echoes the verisimilitude of a traditional shoulder mounted camera, is flawless and renders any such consideration mute.
Stitching everything together is editor Jennifer Lame and to say, unequivocally, that the three hours and nine second runtime does not overstay its welcome, and is the definition of concise, would come nowhere near being an overstatement.
Sadly, with only 30 IMAX prints of the film in circulation, most of us will not get to experience the complete vision of these talented filmmakers — but even still ‘Oppenheimer’ is an engrossing revelation.
In the end, while it might not address the wider global ramifications of weapons of mass destruction, the global arms race or the need for “super power” nations to “keep the world in check”, ‘Oppenheimer’ may well be a peerless piece of artistic expression in terms of portraying the psyche of a man whose work continues to shape the world — with the after effects of “his” destructive invention shaping the immediate aftermath that was his life, that of future generations and the world to this day.
‘Oppenheimer’ (2023), based on the biography ‘American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer’ (2005) by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, was adapted & directed for the screen by Christopher Nolan and stars Cillian Murphy supported by an ensemble featuring Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh and Kenneth Branagh, just to name a very few.
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