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Oppenheimer

Released 2023. Director: Christopher Nolan

OPPENHEIMER IS A SUPERBLY ASSEMBLED CINEMATIC SHOWPIECE of (mostly) men in suits, lab coats and military uniforms talking, questioning and arguing. Christopher Nolan, the consummate creator of sci-fi spectacles who also revitalised the superhero genre, has now shaken up the presentation of biopics.

The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, or the father of the atom bomb, is told in a double-stacked timeline. Even in telling a biographical life account of a historical figure, Nolan couldn’t help experimenting with narrative origami, a technique he’s extraordinarily talented in. Nolan and editor Jennifer Lame cut and splice history and science into an energetic dramatisation in the arduous development of a weapon that ended World War II and started, or some might argue perpetuated, the Cold War.

Oppenheimer’s story starts from his student days in Cambridge to his time teaching quantum physics, looking into his marriage, his affair, his leadershp at the Manhattan Project and beyond. The first timeline, entitled Fission and shot in colour, is a private hearing in which Oppenheimer’s indirect ties with Communism is exploited deliberately to discredit him. The second, entitled Fusion and shot in black and white, focuses on Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, at a Senate confirmation hearing which exposes his machinations on Oppenheimer’s downfall.

Between these two overlapping narratives, the movie covers a large swathe of time and a catalogue of events, mostly relayed through dialogues coming thick and fast. Adapting "American Prometheus" by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin into a superimposing series of history-condensing, character-revealing exchanges, Nolan has fashioned a mainstream blockbuster movie reliant on dialogue, riveting and dynamic without once feeling grandiloquent or talky.

The drama is a fireball of combustion between science and characters. Nolan gives as much attention to the discussions on quantum mechanics as he does to emotional and moral quandaries. Oppenheimer feels like an action thriller with elements of a courtroom drama. In place of Nolan's mainstay of science fiction, this movie is replete with academic details as physicists bounce off theories and calculations with as much suspenseful anticipation as a Vegas heist.

Cillian Murphy brings a nervous nerdiness that makes Oppenheimer a science geek in his younger days before he grows in authority and stature until eventually becoming haunted by the ghosts of his invention. Robert Downey Jr. is excellent in bureaucratic stuffiness that conceals a personal agenda, smug with a streak of self-importance. They make it look effortless in evoking the scientific and political, fully believable as fervent physicist and conniving administrator. The long list of supporting cast, including Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, David Krumholtz, Aiden Ehrenreich, Benny Safdie, Casey Affleck and Kenneth Branagh adds weight to the layers of inquiry. Politics, science, war, Nazism, personal ambitions and weaknesses, all raised and passionately wrangled.

Strauss’ duplicity and ploy to disgrace Oppenheimer makes him the designated villain in a historical drama. But it’s ultimately Oppenheimer’s conflict over his creation and its potential as humankind’s doomsday weapon that strikes at the heart of the story. In the end, how the pursuit of scientific progress and the initial ambition to curb the spread of Hitler’s power can also lead to our total annihilation is a sobering take. It comes down to a battle between human ingenuity and human stupidity and how the two are two sides of the same atom.

Nolan’s characterisation of Oppenheimer resembles some of his most famous fictional leading men. Like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb with a technology that infiltrates the mind in Inception, John David Washington’s nameless ex-CIA agent with a time-shifting gadget in Tenet, even Matthew McConaughey’s Joseph Cooper in his ship through a wormhole in Interstellar, Oppenheimer is a man in possession of an apparatus of earth-shattering potential. He is also Nolan’s most fully-formed character since Guy Pearce’s amnesiac seeker of truth in Memento, primarily because this time the focus is not on a device, an event or a journey but, in the glow of a nuclear spectre, we see a man’s zeal, conscience and guilt.



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1 comentário


tuckgoh
08 de jan.

Enjoyed this epic and deserved its Golden Globes accolade yesterday.

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