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Oppenheimer movie review: This story itself is the spectacle!

Updated on: 22 July,2023 09:23 PM IST  |  mumbai
Mayank Shekhar |

Oppenheimer movie review: Oppenheimer is the greatest biopic since Gandhi

Oppenheimer movie review: This story itself is the spectacle!


Film: Oppenheimer

Cast: Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr

Director: Christopher Nolan

Rating: 4/5

Oppenheimer is the greatest biopic since Gandhi (1982), on the apostle of non-violence. Fittingly it’s on the ‘father of the atom bomb’, who had nothing in common with the father of this nation.

Besides, as it turns out, both were drawn to the Sanskrit text, Bhagavad Gita—as were the Nazis, by the way—which justifies all kinds of karma (action), with dharma (duty).

Goes without saying, Oppenheimer’s spectacular world—where the script, foremost, is the spectacle itself—has little in common with most biopics. A genre that in India, at least, has devolved into such a cliché, that we hear of a ‘biopic’, again—we just wanna run the other way.

But it’ll always be about how a story is being told—for who’s telling it; isn’t it? Oppenheimer decidedly belongs to the ‘Nolanverse’. Meaning, by Christopher Nolan—arguably the most influential filmmaker in contemporary cinema (post Steven Spielberg, James Cameron).

Also, easily, the most commercial/mainstream writer-director in the world, with a cult following unrivalled since Tarantino. Critics themselves have rightly turned him critic-proof.

Why has Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises, The Prestige, Interstellar) achieved that rather unique distinction? By repeatedly making huge budget movies, that never undermine/ignore the audience’s intellect—hence elevating it, instead.

How’s he managed this fusion? As with Oppenheimer—by pulling you into a gigantic, IMAX screen, for an unwavering attention span, over three hours plus.

The thumping bass of the sound in the hall is enough to vibrate your bum on the seat. A relatively non-linear narrative, that carries the audience along, all through. Also, captivatingly real images, leaving the lazy, CGI crap, alone, almost altogether.

By Nolan’s standards, Oppenheimer—based on Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin’s biography, American Prometheus (2005)—focused on quantum physics still, is less a film on science, more on scientists.

So many of whom, in the 1940s, in particular, you realise, used to be such superstars—Einstein, Neils Bohr, Heisenberg, Hans Bethe… Their current equivalents you barely hear of, if they exist at all.

At the centre of this, what kinda man was Oppenheimer? A hugely complex creature, with multiple identities (aren’t we all)—a theoretical physics don, with equal enchantment for the arts, literature, and women; simultaneously a rebel and conformist: an American patriot, with sympathies for socialists….

Indeed, a “genius, that’s no guarantee for wisdom”! Not that I had a mental image for Oppenheimer—it will, of course, be the brilliant Cillian Murphy forever, from hereon.

There is a theory I concur with, that Nolan’s masterpiece, Inception (2010), about dreams inside dreams, was in fact, a film about films. Carrying on the subtext, what if we read Oppenheimer also as a film on filmmaking?

Wherein Strauss (Robert Downey Jr), as the top babu of the atomic energy commission, is the egotistical, megalomaniacal, pen-pusher, studio-boss (minor aside: how many of you think RDJ’s face, with time, seems to be merging with Al Pacino’s?)

There’s General Groves (Matt Damon), pretty much the producer on the ground, militarily supervising the super-secret Manhattan Project, on the making of the atom bomb. And Oppenheimer is the creative brain, being pulled into multiple directions, pressures, but expected to deliver, with a clear head still—his neck is first on the line.

Between these three main characters, what you have is almost an Aaron Sorkin courtroom drama. If it wasn’t for Nolan’s broad, cinematic strokes.

Making this also a movie, at its nucleus, about impending dangers of terms/traps like nationalism, national security, when sold by sociopathic politicians, in particular. Nolan’s made an ‘anti-national’ film, that way, if you may!

All said, Oppenheimer is singularly recalled in history for “220,000 (humans) dead, over time, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” for the A-bombs dropped by America.

Einstein (lovely Tom Conti) had suitably warned him against it, “before either side (Allied and Axis powers) destroys the world,” with WWII. Oppenheimer believed in the deterrence theory.

Going back to karma, maybe it’s just age, and thoughts of mortality that follow—I’ve been obsessed lately to figure if there is such a thing as poetic/divine/karmic justice, after all, for stuff you do to others, and must pay for, during the lifetime.

The guilt—“have blood on my hands”—that Oppenheimer must’ve lived with, shows throughout the concluding chapters of the biopic. Even as the American President Truman (Gary Oldman) shamelessly quips, “Who gives a shit about who built the bomb, [it’s about] but who dropped it?”

Is annihilation intrinsic to the human DNA—why else would a specie actively develop something that can wholly destroy its own self, and its home, only for the hate of ‘others’ within? That said, Oppenheimer is by no means a weepy tragedy—it’s far too energetic a movie to be anything but mesmerising for the most part.

And what a festival this film has been, leading up to it. I first watched Oppenheimer for a scheduled 6.30 pm premiere that, owing to tech delays, ended only at 1.30 am, the next day. I went back to the same IMAX theatre, two days later, to watch a packed, 3 am, public show, that finished in the morning!

Yeah, have seen it twice, already. Therefore, must add—unlike most Nolan films, a second viewing doesn’t enhance the experience, any further. Maybe, it’s also because, for once, you’ve followed/understood the entire movie, the first time on, already!


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