Oppenheimer is an unrelenting stream of bombastic vignettes in need of a narrative chain reaction

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer. | Image: Universal

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer epic offers a series of visceral glimpses into the life of the father of the atomic bomb but gets too busy to reach its full potential.

Out of all this summer’s blockbusters that have had film buffs chomping at the bit, few (really just one, actually) have elicited hype as visceral and sustained as Universal’s Oppenheimer biopic from director Christopher Nolan. With its sizable fleet of A-listers doing mid-20th-century accent work, a complicated historical figure at its center, and a respected auteur steering the ship, Oppenheimer has all the making of a summer blockbuster destined to continue dominating this year’s film discourse for months to come.

But for all of its explosive moments of grandeur and unsurprisingly powerful individual performances, Oppenheimer, as a whole, plays like a chaotic assortment of frantic vignettes coming from a storyteller who’s far too focused on the performance of sage profundity rather than sussing out the real thing.

Inspired by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s seminal 2005 Oppenheimer biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer is an account of the events that led to its eponymous theoretical physicist becoming one of the most lauded, hated, and infamous men in human history for his role in developing the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer commits most of its energy to chronicling the US’s race to develop nuclear weapons during World War II and the subsequent political fallout Oppenheimer weathered afterward as he began to advocate for nuclear nonproliferation.

Like American Prometheus, though, Nolan’s new film also understands the importance of illustrating what kind of idiosyncratic, sexually frustrated, and politically engaged person Oppenheimer was in his pre-fame days — a time when he was still learning just how much of an influence he and his intellect could have over others. Long before he was being grilled by the Gray Board, gracing the covers of Time magazine, or directing the Manhattan Project laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) was an exceedingly brilliant but profoundly awkward young man looking for meaning in the arts and sciences.

Equal parts ensemble drama and stealth thriller, Oppenheimer frames its famed subject as a kind of human catalyst who — both in spite and because of his eccentric mind — innately radiates a kind of animating energy that compels most everyone around him into various kinds of action. It’s that energy that first pulls people like acerbic botanist and high-functioning alcoholic Katherine “Kitty” Puening (Emily Blunt) — Oppenheimer’s eventual wife — and depressive psychiatrist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) — his eventual longtime mistress — into his orbit. That energy’s also what makes so many of his peers gravitate toward him during his years coming up through academia and an important part of what puts him on the radar of Major General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) as he begins building the brain trust destined to power the Manhattan Project.

But there’s a chaos to its overall narrative structure that makes the film play like an assortment of overengineered individual scenes that only coalesce into something concrete occasionally before the movie shifts its focus and attempts to repeat the process to varying degrees of success.

At the same time the movie’s trying to illustrate how Oppenheimer’s left-wing political sensibilities and youthful experiences with labor organization informed his adult worldview, it’s also digging into his love life and the professional jealousies of Oppenheimer’s peers that made him both a threat and someone to look up to. All of that is deeply important context for the film’s quick-fire scenes set during the mid-’50s as United States Atomic Energy Commission commissioner Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) heads up hearings designed to strip Oppenheimer of his security clearance and deeply discredit him in the public eye.

Image: Melinda Sue Gordon / Universal Pictures

But Oppenheimer is so prone to bouncing around from one brief, intense, overly patter-filled scene to another that it often feels like Nolan might have simply shot far, far too much footage and then ultimately cherry-picked the moments that felt impactful to him rather than the ones necessary to set off a narrative chain reaction resulting in a cohesive movie.

This is especially unfortunate because, by and large, many of Oppenheimer’s actors — Blunt, Damon, and Murphy, in particular — are delivering truly fantastic, studied performances that speak to the humanity and complexity of their characters. Both Rami Malek and Alden Ehrenreich are tremendous as Los Alamos physicist David Hill and an unnamed Senate aide, respectively, and Dane DeHaan is downright chilling as Army officer Kenneth Nichols. But because of Oppenheimer’s structure, almost none of these performances really have enough time to take up the space they deserve, and just when you’ve gotten a chance to become comfortable and fully engaged with them, the movie’s already moved on.

Though composer Ludwig Göransson’s score is often beautiful, rather than flowing throughout the film consistently in time with its emotional beats, it fades in and out much like the movie’s vignettes frequently fade to black, and it tends to emphasize how disjointed they feel. But Oppenheimer’s sound — that is to say, its sound design — is arguably the most interesting (though not always well-executed) aspect of the film and what most moviegoers are going to end up being blown away by, in multiple senses of the phrase.

For obvious reasons, there are more than a few explosions that punctuate Oppenheimer’s three-hour runtime. But instead of fixating solely on the visual spectacle of towering infernos designed to mutilate and massacre, Nolan instead tries to use sound to make you feel a fraction of the devastation Oppenheimer became famous for. Though this approach works well when the movie’s depicting explosions, it truly begins to shine later on in the film after the atomic bombs have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Oppenheimer — surrounded by fellow Americans drunk on the idea of American exceptionalism — can’t help but marvel in horror at the idea of what his life’s work has culminated in.

It’s in moments like those — when Oppenheimer’s directly addressing the reality of the US’s decisions made as WWII was coming to an end rather than mythologizing the men behind those decisions — that the movie’s at its absolute best. But ultimately, those moments are so few and far between that Oppenheimer always feels like an assortment of great filmmaking ideas being hamstrung by their haphazard execution.

Oppenheimer also stars Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Kenneth Branagh, Benny Safdie, Dylan Arnold, Gustaf Skarsgård, Matthew Modine, David Dastmalchian, Tom Conti, Michael Angarano, Jack Quaid, Olivia Thirlby, Tony Goldwyn, Emma Dumont, and Gary Oldman. The movie hits theaters on July 21st.

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