Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Nuke Watch: Oppenheimer (2023)

Watched:  02/03/2024
Format:  Amazon
Viewing:  First
Director:  Nolan
Selection:  Jamie

I'd wanted to see Oppenheimer (2023) in the theater, but these days, finding the 4.5 hours it would take to see a three hour movie is not as easy as I'd like (once you add in travel time and previews).   That mission has now been safely accomplished via streaming services.


When it comes to the historical figure of J. Robert Oppenheimer, I haven't done much more than the occasional Google-dive over the years.  I'd learned his name and some about his late-career in the early 90's (if he was discussed in my presence in the 1980's, I was not paying attention or didn't grasp what people were talking about).  

Meanwhile, an armchair interest in "wait, what?" about quantum physics in college had me do a shallow dive into the name-players of 20th Century physics, which I think has a bit in common with other early-days scenes, from comics creation to rock and roll when it comes to a clutch of personalities really kicking things off and influencing everything that came after.  

And, so, yeah, I was aware of how the work from Einstein and Bohr led indirectly and directly to the Manhattan Project via their acolytes and the threat of Germany having access to their own herd of physicists.  And, I knew that Oppenheimer's career took a turn for the worse in the post-war McCarthy-era we're in such a rush to return to.

I mostly had not read anything about the film, and attempted to avoid conversation about the movie - three hours is a long time to be considering other people's opinions instead of just watching a thing.  I am also aware any movie by Nolan will have detractors who don't dig his subject matter or his evolving style - and that's a tough place to start from if you let it get in your head.  

Stylistically, I'm a little stunned this movie did as well as it did, but speaks maybe to the audience's ability to deal with fragmentation of narrative in the 2020s as well as the excellence of the work in assembling in the film.  Nolan and editor Jennifer Lame (as of this writing an Oscar nominee for this work) manage to tell a completely coherent story via snippets of conversations in a non-linear progression, from the late 1920's through the 1960's.  

In some ways, and this is Nolan - so no shocker - the montage-style editing may work because of the formalism of the package.  The "what happened to this man?" format has been in play since Citizen Kane, and though this comes at it from a different angle, it serves the same purpose.  By answering the "what happened?"question, we start at the start and work our way through the pieces, returning to the "present", referencing key points before they happen, and we get to see players move back and forth in time. 

Whether Nolan is a good director of actors is an odd question, but he does seem to surround himself with people I think you could drop pages on and they'd make a meal of it with zero direction.  And this movie is stuffed wall-to-wall with names and faces that could star in a movie on their own.  When you have Matt Damon, Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt in supporting parts rather than the focal role, we're operating at a level you usually need a Marvel intro screen to see this many people you recognize.  And some are just walk-ons.  Branagh gets maybe 15 lines as Niels Bohr.  Gary Oldman is there for maybe 3 or four minutes.

What's all the more interesting is how many of those actors are folks who are good but maybe haven't had all the opportunities of late.  Modine is there, Tony Goldwyn, Steven Houska, Tom Conti, Hartnett.  I was delighted by how great David Kromholtz was as Rabi.

It's not often I decide to just give up writing names of impressive talent in a post, but I feel I must or we'd be here all day.  But there's also blips on the IMDB site like "hey, Jack Quaid was in this?  As Feynman?  When the hell did that happen?"  So, I guess I'll be back for another 3 hour viewing at some point.

But I think the answer is: for what Nolan does, he's a very good director of actors.  There's no false notes, it feels specific while also part fo a whole for what had to have been a complex shoot with minimal time with every actor.  So, yeah, you want your Emily Blunts rolling in and just doing their thing.  And, man, is RDJ good in this.  The part is gold, but he was fantastic.

I can't vouch for the historical accuracy of the movie.  It's Nolan, so I assume he managed to tell a story he wanted to tell that was based largely on fact.  Which is a slippery thing when the history isn't that ancient, but had a lot of viewers and the viewers interest and positioning gets you different answers, as Heisenberg might note (played by Matthias Schweighofer in this movie, btw).    

But, yeah, Cillian Murphy had a lot to work with here, and made the absolute most of it.  We tend to think of the good roles as extremes of humanity, and in its way, that's what this is - but it was all in the tells, not in the showing.

Given the stance on Nolan - I just don't come in with that filter of looking for issues.  I tend to think the guy makes solid films that are clearly his own style, and I'm grateful for that in a cinematic environment where I'm not clear how welcome unique voices are, or what standards people are using to judge movies.  And, look, have your own rubric.  I like Godzilla movies.  

But I also really, really liked this one.  

Look, there's so much information to convey here, and to do it without just having characters look at the camera and state themes and ideas as the film goes on is no mean feat.  I do believe the movie paints a picture of a man of stunning intellect, of moral conviction, doing what was likely the only possible thing in a time we've turned as much a fantasy as our HBO maxi-series instead of the very real history that lives around us and informs our world.  

The experience of the film and it's version of events is intensely well rendered, knowing the gigantic things that haunt us in the 21st century haunted Oppenheimer at the time of the bomb's creation and deployment.  A lot of people watched the movie and I am sure got distracted wanting to go up blind alleys.  But the movie is really asking: so what did we do with this person and why?  And what did he do even when he surely knew the implications ?  And then saw them realized?

The movie carries this weight in every frame.  We knew about this weight walking in, and it's still a hell of a thing to watch.  But the film's drama is equal parts that horror, and equal parts the horror of what comes after as America - in need of an enemy after four years of finding itself in a two-front war - decides the new fronts are Cold War and attacking itself, viciously and rabidly.

Oppenheimer the film, at least, asks the question of "why won't he fight?" but he did his fighting in the lab, and he unlocked hell on earth.  

As a viewer, I dig Nolan's distance from character and refusal to give direct answers, letting the actions of the characters speak for themselves.  I like that he doesn't necessarily hold Oppenheimer up as a model of virtue but a human rather than a myth.  And if we can't get too close, what is the film telling us about the character if not the man?  

The things that aren't said are all there in the subtext.  Nolan is *counting* on you knowing what went down to some extent - this isn't a history tutorial.  It's engaging with the man at the center of events we still haven't wrapped our heads around, even decades into nuclear proliferation.

For me, the formalism works - the stunt casting, the montage, non-linear approach.  And I was shocked that the movie flew by the way it did.  We'd intended to take it on in two nights and blew through it in one.  I have a hard time thinking of a thing I found a misstep or a decision I didn't quite get when I wondered why the movie did what it did.

It's fascinating that so many people saw this thing and it made back the money it did.  It feels like a shift in what's possible at the cinema, if anyone cares to pay attention, and maybe the Academy throwing a few trophies the movie's way will convince the studios there's a reason to greenlight something other than action flicks.

I will say - from what little I caught online, it seems like a lot of the complaints boiled down to "I don't know how to watch a movie and understand what it is about" or "the movie was not about the thing I expected in the way I expected, and that is wrong."  Which I both get and think can be a terrible way to process a movie.  


Steven said...

Please redirect us to the timeline via quantum entanglement where my screen has not been hit by a volley of Earl Grey occasioned by:

> ...for the worse in the post-war McCarthy-era we're in such a rush to return to.

The League said...

sometimes the commentary extends beyond the frame of the film