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Oppenheimer (2023) - Review

Editor's note: This review was originally published on the Carruthers, Leggetter & Whoever blog, which you can access here.


I have seen a lot of reviewers begin their Oppenheimer reviews with declarations of how and where they saw the film, whether it be 70mm or IMAX, a theatre of great repute or a multiplex not used to projection. This is normally then followed by some sort of addendum; ‘perhaps in its fullest formats I would have liked it more’ or ‘this is the only way to see this film’. Well I guess my addendum is a little bit different; I saw it in a great cinema with beautiful digital projection, but no 70mm and no IMAX as neither were unfortunately available to me in the strict time I had to watch the film – and yet despite these suggested limitations, I left my screening stunned, awed and on the threshold of the opinion that this is the first towering American epic tragedy since There Will Be Blood. Perhaps it is the relentless horror of its prescience, but one can also not avoid the feeling that has been echoed a few times already that is really it is one of the important films of this filmic era thus far.

There is just something about a pure relentless film that doesn’t ever falter its pace, especially when that film is three hours long and relentlessly shifting perspectives, timelines and formats to tell its tale. Oppenheimer is elegantly crafted but one cannot remove the overall sensationalist sensibility of the way it has been crafted. This is a film that shifts between three chief influences in my eyes almost exactly at the edge point of its three individual acts; There Will Be Blood – a towering American tragedy character study focussed solely on the mission of one man and those whose his charisma consumes and the destructive nature of that mission, based around a chief set-piece at the centre of the film that is nothing short of visually spell-binding. Then there is JFK – where an almost pop sensibility of clashing ensemble with spectacle is used to tackle courtroom legislation and the practicalities of conspiracy, as well as the tangible horrors of the red tape and black and white paper that occur after the biggest events of our time. And finally there is Amadeus – where a tale we possibly already know is told through the lens of the embittered supporting figure in that tale who was as pivotal in their lives as anybody else in the crafting the tragic arc of their lives. Now, anybody who knows me knows that these are three of my favourite films of all time and that Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker (who despite a few personal misses for me of recent) is one whose highs are as high as many can get. To be frank, you don’t need to be a nuclear physicist to do the math when these facts collide and the final product is supremely above standard.

This is Nolan’s finest screenplay in regards to dialogue as well as construction, whereas beyond Memento and The Dark Knight, his penmanship has largely been commendable purely down to the finer elements of construction rather than emotion and the like. Nolan is working here on another level of dramatic and incredibly specific emotion and dissection. This is a film that focusses on the singular person in the macro and the micro in collision and in the direct centre of a world of danger and invention. Nolan is working in adaptation with Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s tome American Prometheus, and overall the title of that autobiographical piece weighs heavy and informs the core of Nolan’s work. This is at its core a film of immensely biblical and tragic proportions for the personal and for humanity past, present and future. The editing of Jennifer Lame is, in a word, transcendent. Its pace is never faltering and its propulsive nature never second guesses, it is frantic and equal parts still. It is Lame’s best work with Nolan so far and some of the best in a career with a series or major highlights already. Hoyte van Hoytema is once again working with the great large format auteurs of our era following last years’ sensational Nope, to give us even more spectacle on a major level. This is a film that rallies between spectacle of astoundingly awful things and highlighting great horrors of the personal - Nolan, Hoytema and Lame are working together, paired with further sublime work by Ludwig Goransson with his stunning score to offer some of the most truly frightening conceptualisations and sequences I have seen in some time. This is a film that mentally and physically effects one's jugular.

Then there is the matter of performance, where things are taken even further into the realms of the sublime. Cillian Murphy Is beyond perfect in a role that requires such dexterity of charisma and subdued terror that one reels every time they deliver yet another beautifully crafted subtle moment of drama and of believable pain and torture. But this is also not some coded performance of an unbelievable madman creative, this is a deeply believable project where charisma and vanity also shine through the internal pain. Robert Downey Jr. is on another level in an ensemble of performance that all are stellar: he is swift, cutting, deeply tortured and, in his major scenes, compelling to a fault. More sublime work. Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh for me defy critiques of Nolan’s depictions of women, with Blunt delivering possibly the most cheer-worthy moment of the film and Pugh delivering the perfect performance for Nolan’s first exploration into the psycho-sexual. For me in many ways this combines Nolan’s love of Kubrick, beyond that of his normal influences and delves into the realms of Eyes Wide Shut with the same success as he has touched upon his other films. Further standouts amongst this immensely stacked cast for me included Jason Clarke with immense anger and boisterousness, Matt Damon with an all-American sensibility that brings home many of the films more haunting notions and Casey Affleck in a searingly unsettling turn that has stuck with me since the day I watched the film. An ensemble like this is not distracting in the least when everybody is simply coming together to work upon a film of this incredible class and craft.

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10/10. There are many words and there are also so few to be said. In short, this is a spellbinding and tremendously effective portrait of the dangers of what we have reaped and the few who specifically led us down into that snowball chain reaction that indeed haunts us to this day. This includes yet again multiple astounding set pieces that showcase Nolan’s tangible craft of physical film-making, however this is more importantly Nolan’s finest drama and a relentlessly enthralling character study above all else. As the film shifts across its running time it never once loses effect and for me in-fact gained some in its own pulsating snowball fashion. We are dealing with a masterpiece here and I could be wrong, but since this film's announcement I proclaimed if it was any good this would be Nolan’s best Oscar chance. Well it’s better than good, it’s a film that can only garner the highest form of hyperbole and is not only my favourite film of the year so far, but is at current my Oscar favourite in at least 8 different categories.


P.S. There was a part of me that I can’t help but laugh at how the Kennedy comment at the end was played in almost the exact same manner as the infamous Robin comment from The Dark Knight Rises (a film that I actually greatly enjoy). But this time the film has earnt so much ‘credit’ that this moment didn’t just land for me, but in actuality didn’t wring of a single element of eye-rolling.


P.P.S. Overall Nolan ranking wise, I think we are going to be caught for a while in an eternal tie between this and The Dark Knight. For me this is unequivocally his best film and a towering achievement, however The Dark Knight will always remain an electric masterful film in its own right (with certainly a few flaws). But I also at this stage don’t feel I have to make the argument that ‘Oppenheimer is better, but The Dark Knight is more rewatchable’, because I may be wrong, but I firmly feel like this will enter into my Magnolia, Godfather, English Patient (amongst others) of yearly ‘set aside a Sunday’ films and also with be one I choose to watch whenever it’s time to flick through channels.


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Tom Carruthers is a featured writer for Left Brain Media. You can find his other work here.


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