Review: I wish "Oppenheimer" had ignited the atmosphere

Honestly, I had no interest in seeing this movie originally, simply by virtue of the billboard featuring an explosion. This implied that the film would be an action movie, about the nuclear bomb, as told by the American side. It seemed like poor taste. I imagined Nolan being his usual anti-special effects self and opting for a real nuclear bomb to be built and dropped on Japan again. Then he could shoot the impact and fallout in his favorite high-quality film stock and make it look cool. I really wasn't interested, but I went to the matinée anyway. Imagine my surprise when it went an entirely different route, but in equally bad taste.

Oppenheimer begins in cliché. There's a large traumatic event- an explosion of some sort, followed by a sweaty character waking up, or coming back from PTSD-enforced mediation. This is our first introduction to Cillian Murphy's blank face that we'll see using the same expression throughout the rest of the film. Have a good memory for faces? No? Fine, you don't need to. A nice chunk of this film cuts between poorly written quip and Cillian looking blank to quip and Cillian looking blankly at something else with his mouth slightly agape. Reader, I hope we've brushed up on Soviet montage theory recently, as you should know when you're being manipulated. Naturally, if a film's opening shot is cliché, there's absolutely no chance that it'll take a wild turn towards originality in later minutes. The entirety of the film is a series of empty aphorisms, contrived metaphors and visual analogies that first-graders, let alone theoretical physicists, would find condescending. Marbles in a fishbowl? I felt patronized. Proving genius by scrawling wildly on a chalkboard? Shame on you.

Oppenheimer's political wavering might have stabilized had he read his contemporary, Orwell, on matters like the Spanish Civil War. Nolan's use of dying metaphors and the like might similarly have improved had he read Orwell as well. Oppenheimer is rife with "metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves." One phrase that Orwell mentions, "toe the line," is even used verbatim in the film. I doubt that Nolan wrote this line with knowledge of the phrase's meaning, which is, as Orwell would phrase it, a "sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying".

We are told repeatedly that Oppenheimer is, at least early in his career, a communist. Short of him telling us that he has some interest in the professors unionizing, there's no substantive understanding of what his politics were, or why. Considering that his history of leftist involvement is what gets him a good ole fashioned kangaroo McCarthy court, and is the central dramatic device for the whole film, Nolan might have done well to explain the philosophy behind Oppenheimer's beliefs, beyond family proximity and a desire to get laid. Instead, exposition is drowned out by music. It's too loud. Subtitled audiences are at an advantage against those of us who were subjected to the whims of the sound mixer. Every time a truly dramatic or thoughtful scene came on, the score would bump up and up, drowning out something politically nuanced or robustly scientific. The actors might have done well to yell over the music, at least it would have forced them to emote more. The bits of Science™ that we do get to hear are pop science, a stoner's understanding of the golden ratio, but for particle physics.

Nothing in the film is aided by the editing, either, which seems to have taken its pacing from Rick and Morty's Interdimensional Cable Quick Mystery segment, as hastily realized by the editor from Battlefield Earth.

As a character study, it fails. The writing for every character is the same. One of them drinks more, one of them throws flowers in the trash, one of them has an accent that makes some question his loyalty to the project. Everyone says Oppenheimer is an asshole. We only know this because we're told that he is. Yes, he's curt, but so is his lover who throws his flowers away. This botanical quirk could have easily been applied to our protagonist, his wife, his colleagues, even his brother. Nothing anyone does is particular to their character as individuals. However, only a true asshole would look at New Mexico and think, "we should bomb this."

I ran into a friend who had just come back from seeing the movie before I had watched it. I asked him if "the line" was said in the film. You know, "I am become death." Yes, he told me, but he wouldn't tell me how. This is by far the best scene in the movie and played completely seriously, à la Leslie Nielsen in Airplane. For this scene alone, I recommend watching this piece of comedy. Following my friend's lead, I also won't divulge the particulars of this segment. Once he says, "destroyer of worlds," you can leave the theater.

An especially strange component of the film is its entire plot, which focuses on Oppenheimer's McCarthy era hearings and the events leading up to it. There are all of two minutes total dealing with the actual effects of the atom bomb, which, let's face it, is why the audience is sitting in the theater in the first place. The box office can thank the billboard. Instead, we're treated to three hours of a man who willingly worked the US military apparatus getting told that he's going to lose his security clearance. Who cares? This might make an interesting chapter in his biography, but it's definitely not important enough to warrant an entire biopic. Clearance or no clearance, this man can spend the rest of his life in a mansion situated next to a conveniently sage Einstein. And what's this clearance for, anyway? Should we be cheering on another chapter of bigger, better bomb development? Are the Japanese a moot footnote in the larger picture of American military imperialism? That Oppenheimer focuses on his "martyrdom" and the McCarthy era's targeting of Real® Patriotic ™ Americans© despite their contributions to the military industrial complex is at best a mistake and at worst, deeply conservative filmmaking.