At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Oppenheimer “2023”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Oppenheimer “2023”

MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Epic Biographical Thriller/Stars: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, Benny Safdie, Dylan Arnold, Gustaf Skarsgård, David Krumholtz, Matthew Modine, David Dastmalchian, Tom Conti, Michael Angarano, Jack Quaid, Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby, Dane DeHaan, Danny Deferrari, Alden Ehrenreich, Jefferson Hall, Jason Clarke, James D’Arcy, Tony Goldwyn, Devon Bostick, Alex Wolff, Scott Grimes, Josh Zuckerman, Matthias Schweighöfer, Christopher Denham, David Rysdahl, Guy Burnet, Louise Lombard, Harrison Gilbertson, Emma Dumont, Trond Fausa Aurvåg, Olli Haaskivi, Gary Oldman, John Gowans, Kurt Koehler, Macon Blair, Harry Groener, Jack Cutmore-Scott, James Remar, Gregory Jbara, Tim DeKay, James Urbaniak/Runtime: 180 minutes

I think it’s safe to start this review off dear reader by saying that, in the aftermath of the release of Tenet all the way back in the long-ago year of 2020, it would not have surprised people if you told them you were more than just a wee bit worried about the trajectory of iconic film helmer Christopher Nolan’s career. This is because, despite this reviewer actually finding a fair bit to enjoy in the film, it ultimately got mixed at best reviews, was with no hesitation plopped onto streaming by Warner Bros due in no small part to a little thing called the COVID pandemic wrecking absolute havoc on movie theaters at that particular point in time, and was also ultimately the catalyst for Nolan choosing to move on from the aforementioned studio following a close to 3 decade-long collaboration between the two. Fortunately, we see that it was in the aftermath of this that not only did this modern filmmaking icon find a new creative partner in Universal Studios, but also a new slice of cinema to tackle in the form of an epic biopic on none other than the legendary scientist Robert Oppenheimer. A slice of cinema that, upon seeing the finished product of, I can now safely confirm manages to establish beyond a doubt that Tenet was nothing more than just a wee bit of a misstep and that Nolan still more than definitely has his directorial mojo. Indeed it might be not a perfect slice of cinema by any stretch of the imagination, but through being equal parts an intriguing character analysis as well as a vast and expansive through a distinct period of world history, Oppenheimer proves to be an intelligent, extremely well-constructed behind the camera, and phenomenally performed in front of the camera by an immense yet all operating at the pinnacle of their respective talents cast of players three-hour cinematic odyssey that might be a bit more on the slow-burn side than you might have anticipated (especially due to the subject matter), but which also makes up for that with a story that will leave you on the edge of your seat whilst also ensuring you have something to think about long after the final haunting shot and especially after the screen has cut to black and the credits have begun to roll…

The plot is as follows: An adaptation of the book American Prometheus, our slice of cinema regales us with the tale of a physicist by the name of (get this) J. Robert Oppenheimer and how he conjured up something in 1945 that not only put a stop to a dire conflict, but which also had some unintended consequences as well. However, much in the same vein as a lot of other entries in Nolan’s filmography, we see that this story is regaled to us in a non-linear format. As such, our story gets underway with our hero under investigation in the year 1954 by a panel headed by Gordon Gray and which had counsel assisting in the form of a more than slightly sleazy attorney named Roger Robb. A panel that has one objective in mind: to not only discredit Oppenheimer, but to do everything in their power to take away his security clearance and ensure he cannot have a voice in the path the national defense in the United States chooses to traverse ever again. An objective that, given that it’s occurring to a man who changed the history of the world in such an incredible way, seems downright astonishing at best and criminal at worst. At any rate, we see that, through being permitted to provide a statement at his hearing that he hopes will remind those overseeing of his honesty, character, and loyalty to the United States, Oppenheimer begins to regale the panel he has been assembled in front of with the story of not only his journey from student to where he is now, but also the various individuals who have come in and out of his life that have all, in their own way, played a part in making him the man he ultimately became. Whilst this is going on however, the film also presents us with moments being told from a man named Lewis Strauss’ perspective. Lewis, we soon learn is the former head of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and who is under consideration from Congress to be a part of President Eisenhower’s cabinet as his Secretary of Commerce, but who also has a rather….distinct relationship with Oppenheimer. As a result, we see that a story soon begins to form along these two distinct yet interlinked narratives. One of ego, moral anguish, terror, political machinations, determination to succeed at all costs, a scientific breakthrough that could either save or destroy the world, but above all of the man who created it and the impact this breakthrough had. Not just on his relationships with others, but on his life and ultimately his legacy as well…..

Now due in no small part to the fact that this is a slice of cinema being given to us by none other than Christopher Nolan after all, it should come as no surprise to learn that in terms of the work done behind the camera that this film is a bonafide textbook example in moviemaking at its finest. This starts with the jaw-droppingly beautiful work done by Hoyte van Hoytema in the photography department. Indeed be it beautiful shots of New Mexico scenery or even in the parts of the film in black and white, I think it can be said that there is not one point in time where you don’t possess some degree of reverence for what is being showcased on the screen before you and it all culminates in a moment where, with no CGI being administered at all, what we are shown on camera shouldn’t just renew your faith in just how potent cinema can be as an artform, but also remind you what it can showcase for us especially when you have expert craftspeople working on a film like we see here. We also see that this slice of cinema is also the blessed recipient of a truly beautiful musical accompaniment from Ludwig Göransson. Indeed not only does it merge together the music of a scary movie with music that is a tad more classical in nature, but this score also does a grand job at immersing you into the titular character in such a way that you are left floored and at some points haunted by what it reveals about how he sees the world. Suffice it to say this is an extremely potent score and one that shows that it isn’t just Hans Zimmer who Nolan can get phenomenal music out of. We also see that the work done by the production design team is also just as incredible especially in regards to its intricately faithful recreation of the town Oppenheimer had Army engineers build at Los Alamos for the scientists working there and their families. Indeed not only does it look exactly like pictures from that era showcase for us, but it also feels like we have managed to go back in time and are walking through the town and labs right there with the characters themselves. Finally, in what is probably one of his finest screenplays to date in his career, we see that Nolan manages to do an incredible job at adapting an Oppenheimer biography entitled American Prometheus and conjuring up a script for this slice of cinema that is not just compacted as well as plentiful, but also one that is incredibly multilayered to say nothing of presented to us from a first-person point of view thus permitting us to brilliantly both see and hear Oppenheimer’s way of thinking. Suffice it to say then that, in terms of the work that is done behind the camera, this slice of cinema is more than just an amazing cinematic experience. Rather, it is also no less the very definition of movie magic at its very best.

Of course, to no surprise, it is also worth pointing out that the work done in front of the camera by the immense and talented cast of players manages to be just as triumphant as the work done behind the camera in nearly every regard. This starts with, as the titular scientific icon, Cillian Murphy who, despite repeated collaborations with Nolan on other movies, is at long last being provided the chance to lead a movie and the result is nothing short of incredible. Indeed not only does Murphy immerse himself fully into the part of this bonafide legend, but he also gives us a turn here that proves to be a wonderful mix of nuance, riveting, conviction, and yet also haunted. Not just by what he accomplishes mind you, but about the long-term ramifications that could come from the world possessing such an item. Suffice it to say that it’s a fantastic performance and one that I hope garners him at the very least some awards attention come next year. Yet, besides Murphy, we see that backing him up is a massive support cast that is equally as talented in its own right. With that being said though, perhaps the one that deserves the most attention would be none other than Robert Downey Jr. as the equally as enigmatic Lewis Strauss. Yes this is very much a rather difficult character to play for reasons that I shan’t spoil here, but nevertheless Downey still does a grand job at not only proving to be absolutely electric in every single minute of screentime he is given with particular regard to a rather explosive moment near the end, but also in providing audiences with a reminder that, even when not playing a superhero, he is still an incredible actor. We also see that, besides Downey, we also get terrific work here from Benny Safdie, the always enjoyable Matt Damon as Manhattan Project overseer General Leslie Groves, a wonderful to see him back on the big screen again Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Kenneth Branagh, David Krumholtz, Tom Conti as none other than Albert Einstein, Alden Ehrenreich, and Macon Blair to name a few examples. Oh and that’s not even going into such talented efforts from such players as Rami Malek, Matthew Modine, David Dastmalchian, Jack Quaid, a wonderfully sleazy Dane DeHaan, and Josh Peck (yes from Nickelodeon’s Drake & Josh) among others including a surprise one-scene appearance from a certain actor that is downright brilliant. Yet despite all the wonderful work done by this cast of players, there is one particular arena where we see Nolan struggle a little bit and that is in regards to the two main female characters at the heart of this story who are played by Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt. I say this because every time these 2 characters actually start to pick up some much-needed characterization we find that the movie’s tempo cheats them of the ability to go any further or to wait until they are allotted some more screentime. To be fair, Blunt does get not only more screentime and even a moment worthy of applause, but even in her case we see that more often than not she is forced to act like her character from The Girl on the Train in order to really distinguish herself. Yes she does do good with what she is provided, this IS Emily Blunt we are talking about, but it is more than a wee bit irksome that her character is basically delegated to the “devoted wife with a mind of her own” archetype more often than not. That quibble aside though, there is no denying that the work, by and large, of the cast in front of the camera most assuredly is nothing short of incredible no matter how big or small their role may be.

All in all it is no closely guarded secret that the topic of human existence that is our history as a species is not one that is always looked at with a lot of interest at times when a film maker is setting out to make a movie with either a big budget or which the studio would look at releasing during the summer movie season. At the same time, it also is by no means that uncommon to see that, even when a helmer who most likely had a loving bond with fireworks rather than school books growing up try to tackle topics from this realm, the end result can at times tragically be a bit on the hit or miss side. Thankfully, we as movie goers still have scribe/helmers like Christopher Nolan who not only can bring such moments to life for us, but do it in a way that is riveting, thought-provoking, and yet also a bit chilling all rolled into one. I say that because with this slice of cinema, Nolan has managed to take the story of the man who gave the planet one of the most important inventions of the past 100 years and conjured up for audiences an epic film that is able to thread the needle between entertaining and chillingly contemplative. To that end, we see that this film isn’t just wanting to showcase for us an important moment in history, but to utilize that moment as an ominous cautionary note to remind us not to repeat it in the future. An admirable mission since, by presenting iconic moments in history to audiences in this manner, we are now able to make them and the events they showcase accessible to everyone rather than those who will determine its chances as an Oscar contender. A method to the madness that is not only enjoyable from a narrative point of view, but which could help bring back to the forefront necessary discussion about a terror that, truth be told, is still just as prevalent as the day the first A-bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki all the way back in 1945. Suffice it to say then that in my opinion this slice of cinema is one that has a home next to such films as Lawrence of Arabia, The Insider, Malcolm X, and even JFK to an extent in how these films not only gave us a look at important people or events in the history of the world, but then also gave us some difficult things to ponder long after the credits have begun to roll. More than that though, Oppenheimer is an extremely well-performed and crafted slice of cinema that is easily one of the finest slices of cinema that the year 2023 has seen fit to give us so far and a true must-see in every sense of the word. Make of that what thou will. On a scale of 1-5 I give Oppenheimer “2023” a solid 4.5 out of 5.