“OPPENHEIMER”
Starring Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon, Robert Downey, Jr., Tom Conti, Kenneth Branagh, Gary Oldman, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Matthew Modine, Rami Malek, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh
Written by Christopher Nolan
Based on the book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer”
by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Produced by Emma Thomas, Charles Roven and Christopher Nolan

By Matt Neufeld
July 20, 2023

Oliver Stone’s name isn’t located anywhere in the credits of “Oppenheimer,” but Stone’s continual, tired, self-centered tendencies and habits of over-indulgence, over-directing, over-producing and over-writing, over-editing and utilizing over-frenzied camera shots and editing cuts are all over the movie, much to the film’s detriment, but still not enough to completely write off this over-everythinged exercise in controlled and nearly-destructive filmmaking chaos. That said, “Oppenheimer” remains a good movie, albeit a quite flawed good movie, but this overdone project is certainly, definitely not the expected “masterpiece,” “epic” or blockbuster cinematic event that some over-excited fangeeks and science-nerds expected it to be.

The various negative Stoneian influences that bring down “Oppenheimer” from any type of elevated peak rest wholly with one person, and that’s the person who seems to have watched too many of Stone’s movies too many times: director, writer and co-producer Christopher Nolan. And it’s no surprise for anyone that Nolan’s movies mirror Stone’s movies, because both men’s movies continually, detrimentally suffer from the same array of problems, and those are the general, but very real, problems listed above.

For Stone, with his stream of attempts to filmically document and reflect the sixties–“JFK,” “The Doors,” “Nixon,” “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July”–and with other films, notably “Natural Born Killers,” and “Wall Street,” “Any Given Sunday” and “W.,” his varied, blatant excesses and self-indulgent filmmaking and concurrent failed attempts at some type of experimental filmmaking ended up bringing down every one of these movies, often tragically, but always disappointingly. The same could be said about Nolan, and, no, this isn’t the sole corner of the world to state that observation. Many folks, many times, from many sources, have criticized Nolan for his over-indulgence, his confusing scripts and directing, and his narrow-focus, blinders-on, impervious nature of crafting narrow-focus, blinders-on, self-indulgent, confusing and impervious movies. “Inception,” “Insomnia,” “The Prestige,” “Interstellar,” “Tenet,” and even his three “Batman” movies all suffer from over-riding, irritating directorial over-indulgent tendencies that bring down what could have been good or possibly maybe great movies. Those tendencies are less evident in “Memento” and “Dunkirk,” and, wouldn’t you know it, those two films remain Nolan’s best work.

“Oppenheimer,” it must be said, reluctantly, but truthfully, suffers from the same continual irritating Nolanesque–and Stonesque–faults and tendencies that plagued these other Nolan and Stone movies. But it also needs to be noted that a compelling, real-life-based story; a strong cast who does their best amid Nolan’s smothering directing distractions and who ultimately deliver some strong performances; strong period detail; strong overall production value; and a slew of underlying, important messages, lessons and themes combine to fortunately keep “Oppenheimer” going as a good movie, and a good movie worth seeing in the theaters.

“Oppenheimer” is based on the true story of the brilliant, genius-level American physics, astronomy, philosophy and atomic bomb research scientist, professor, activist, writer and lecturer Julius Robert Oppenheimer, who was one of many such brilliant minds who led the sprawling Manhattan Project, which was the U.S. federal government’s massive scientific research and manufacturing project to produce the atomic bomb during and slightly after World War II. Generally speaking, the Manhattan Project, which received that name because that’s where the project started, was an extensive, expensive and driven research project that operated from 1939 to 1946; employed nearly 130,000 people, including many of the country’s most educated and smart scientific minds; operated at more than thirty sites across the country; and had as it’s main, over-arching primary mission the development, creation and, ultimately, use of the world’s first operable, working atomic bomb.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, as he was commonly referred to, was recruited by the government to be one of the Manhattan Project’s main leaders, directors and researchers. He chose to work, research and manufacture on a sprawling, hastily-constructed, newly-created military base near Los Alamos, New Mexico. There, Oppenheimer worked with many of the country’s best scientists, researching, discussing, analyzing, experimenting, brainstorming and theorizing about how to actually and properly create that atomic bomb. The enveloping, over-riding goal was not just to produce the bomb, but to produce the bomb before the Germans or even the Russians could. Of course, it’s no spoiler to report that these hard-working, dedicated and intelligent men and women who worked on the Manhattan Project eventually succeeded.

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. On August 9, 1945, the United States dropped a second atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki, Japan. Estimates vary, but the bombings are believed to have resulted in the deaths of an estimated 129,000 to 226,000 people, most of whom were civilians. On August 15, 1945, Japan, which had attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, drawing the United States into World War II, surrendered, prompting the subsequent end of World War II.

If the “Oppenheimer” filmmakers had solely focused only on the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos scientific research work and the stimulating, intelligent, intellectual back-and-forth, brainstorming, competitiveness and the actual processes that went into this work, that indeed would have produced a great story and movie. To think that a federal government put together such a widespread, wide-ranging, consuming, massive all-in scientific research project at more than thirty sites across the country utilizing nearly 130,000 people is endlessly fascinating, incredible and impressive. Along with the 1960’s Moon landing and space exploration projects, the Manhattan Project is one of the United States’ greatest scientific research projects, and the Project is also one of the great scientific research projects in history.

Again, that one aspect of Oppenheimer’s story, by itself, would make a great movie. And that’s the movie that “Oppenheimer” should have been.

Alas, and however, and unfortunately, Nolan decided to focus concurrently on a distracting–and ultimately insanely-ridiculous–side story that real history and real life and the truth proved to be completely psychotic, insane, moronic, offensive and unprofessional. After the war, as Oppenheimer—-and many others around the world, it should be noted—-started to question the continued production and proliferation of hydrogen bombs, nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction, whatever name applies, that quite normal, common sense opposition registered, crazily, to some wayward conservatives in the government as somehow being unpatriotic and possibly treasonous amid the increasingly insane, paranoid, lunatic and dangerously increasing nuclear war fears, communist fears, so-called “cold war” fears, bomb fears and worries, spy fears and attendant crazy, unnecessary communist witch hunts, witch trials (in a sense) and all-around stupidity. Oppenheimer was caught up in all of this. And simply because he intelligently and insightfully protested, wrote and lectured against dangerous weapons, and because he and his friends just happened to associate with, socialize with and be friends with free-thinkers, lefties and radicals who experimented with communist thoughts or–gasp–even joined the American communist party in the 1930s and 1940s, Oppenheimer came under suspicion, was threatened, was investigated and was the subject of a lunatic kangaroo-court, third-world-style, facist-style so-called “security hearing” in 1954—eight long years after the end of World War II!

Now, that may sound like a good story to some, but it’s really a horrible story. The security hearing was a kangaroo court. It was facist–ironic, since it was held in the name of democracy. It was a witch hunt. It was delusional. It was purely political–the absolute worst kind of political. And the 1954 “security hearing” about Oppenheimer turned out to be a sham, a con, a hustle, a house of artificial cards. It was a whole lot of nothing. Just like the attendant McCarthyism communist witch hunts were a whole lot of nothing.

Nolan chose to focus on this part of Oppenheimer’s story as a counterbalance and counterpoint to the Manhattan Project story. This may seem fascinating and interesting to people on the surface, but the cold truth is that because the very aspect of the “security hearing” was rooted in sham, unethical and even possibly illegal politics, it just doesn’t make a good story. The hearing was so ridiculous and moronic, even as much as Nolan desperately tries to dramatize the hearing and include that alongside the Project story, the two very different stories just don’t gel or hold up, dramatically, filmically or suspensefully. The hearing was a genuine conflict, yes, but it was an empty, sham, pseudo conflict.

By including the story about the hearing in “Oppenheimer,” Nolan also ballooned his movie to a running time of three hours. The movie, easily, didn’t need to be three hours.

“Oppenheimer” would have been a better movie of Nolan had just focused on the Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer, of course, was not a communist. He was not a spy, as some idiots thought or lied about. He was not a traitor. And many, many, many people of all types flirted with, thought about, adopted, discussed and debated communist ideologies in the thirties and forties–but they were not necessarily anti-American, spies, traitors or dangerous operatives intent on destroying the United States. Oppenheimer, well, you know, he actually led the Manhattan Project that helped end World War II, bring the soldiers back home and set the United States moving forward into the ensuing greatest generation and baby boomer progress that made the U.S., however flawed, the most powerful and influential country on the planet.

However, “Oppenheimer” remains a pretty good three-hour biographical, historical and dramatic film. The lead and supporting actors perform well; the strict, detailed attention to period costuming, wardrobe, hair, make-up, cars, props, buildings, sets, offices, homes, restaurants, clubs and other sets, locations and locales is simply superb; as noted, the overall production value–production design, set design, art direction–is above-average; and, still, that Manhattan Project story is important, captivating and full of life lessons, morals, messages, truths and themes.

Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer carries this movie and he turns in the best, most grounded, most relatable and most believable performance in the film. Murphy expertly portrays a conflicted, somewhat confounded, brilliant, deep-thinking and scientifically- and academically-gifted scientist who knows, deep down in his heart, mind and soul, just what he’s doing and what he has done. Murphy turns in a great performance that soundly forms the foundation of the film, as the acting here should, of course. Murphy is ably assisted by a talented cast who also perform well: Matt Damon as Leslie Groves, the military official who also led the Manhattan Project, working closely with Oppenheimer; Robert Downey, Jr., buried under mounds of make-up and prosthetics, as Lewis Strauss, a one-time science community friend of Oppenheimer and leader of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission who later cowardly turned on him amid the ’50s witch hunts; Tom Conti, who with just a few short scenes and with just a few lines as Albert Einstein delivers one of the film’s best, most normal performances; Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer’s troubled wife; Florence Pugh as Oppenheimer’s girlfriend; Kenneth Branagh, also in just a few scenes, as scientist Niels Bohr; Gary Oldman, a hoot in just one scene as Harry Truman; and Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Matthew Modine and Rami Malek.

It’s interesting to note that Gary Oldman has now played two of the most famous leaders of World War II– Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” and Truman in “Oppenheimer.”

“Oppenheimer” is based on the 2005 book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. One can only guess that this book is a great read, as that full story of Oppenheimer’s life is likely so much better-suited for a literary work, rather than a feature film.

So with all of this, the over-riding problem with “Oppenheimer” is simply, as stated, Nolan’s tendency to clutter and drown the movie with unnecessarily frenetic, too-quickly-cut camera shots, angles and special lighting, sound and special affects tricks, slights, movements, cuts and technological doodads and gizmos. The overall editing, pacing and timing at times feels rushed and overdone, as if Nolan feels he has to add extra affects and camera work to liven up the dialogue, scenes, story and exposition. And, as with just about any film striving to portray brilliant scientists, thinkers, researchers, engineers, mathematicians, academics, intellectuals and other smart minds in a filmic way, some scenes just come across as slightly wonky, nerdy, pretentious–and confusing. Most of the world’s populace are not scientists, and the continual challenge in the movies is to present scientists and academics in a relatable, grounded way in which people can actually understand them, relate to them and even like them. At times in “Oppenheimer,” Nolan gets too carried away in the scientific mumbo jumbo, and the viewer slowly feels their eyes glazing over. This, too, is a recurring problem in Nolan’s movies.

And, oddly, the Manhattan Project’s Trinity test of an atomic bomb explosion on July 16, 1945, is strangely, oddly anticlimactic and weirdly underwhelming in the movie. This should have been one of the most intense, most suspenseful scenes in the movie–but it’s not.

For some artistic stretch of a reason, Nolan decided to shoot some scenes in “Oppenheimer” in black and white, and the tactic only comes across as irritating, distracting, unnecessary and a filmic gimmick. The black and white trick does not add to the movie. The scenes that were shot in black and white could very easily been shot in color, and that approach would have made the movie better.

Oppenheimer, though conflicted after the war about the production and proliferation of hydrogen and nuclear weapons, and although the crazies in the U.S. government cleared him of being a communist, a spy or any real threat in any way, but still stupidly took away his security clearance, well, he continued to be one of the country’s most important scientific minds. For most educated and intelligent people, Oppenheimer remained the brilliant hero and the brilliant scientist that he always truly was. After the war, Oppenheimer led the prestigious and well-respected private scientific research institution, The Institute for Advanced Study, which is located in Princeton, New Jersey, but is not a part of Princeton University. He led the Institute from 1947 to 1966, when he retired. And during that time, he continued to write, research, lecture –and warn the world about the very real dangers of nuclear weapons.

Julius Robert Oppenheimer died from throat cancer in 1967 at the age of 62.

“Oppenheimer” delivers an array of obvious, but important, messages, morals and themes about those ever-present, ever-real and always-scary dangers from nuclear weapons, and weapons of all types, and the movie delivers always-needed warnings about just how far human beings can, and will, and should not, go toward increasingly ruining the only planet they have to live on.

Oppenheimer said that during the Trinity test run of an atomic bomb explosion in Los Alamos on July 16, 1945, he thought about a verse from Bhagavad Gita, which is a work of Hindu scripture: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Another, more recent line comes to mind. In James Cameron’s classic “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” from 1991, which remains one of the best films that warns about the dangers of nuclear war and weapons, John Connor asks the Terminator if human beings are going to survive. “It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves,” the Terminator wisely responds.

The Terminator was right. It is in man’s nature to destroy themselves. However, fortunately, it’s also in man’s nature to try and survive, and to live and fight another day.

Sarah Connor knew this. At the end of “Terminator 2,” she wisely, hopefully noted, “If a machine, a terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can, too.”

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Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years.