“Oppenheimer” Review: Destruction as Achievement

Director Christopher Nolan takes audiences to the origin of the atomic bomb and the nuclear arms race through the story of the man who gave us the power to destroy ourselves. This is our review of “Oppenheimer”.

Still from the film 'Oppenheimer'

Photo: Universal Pictures

LatinAmerican Post | Juan Andrés Rodríguez

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Leer en español: Reseña de “Oppenheimer”: La destrucción como un logro

“I have become death, the destroyer of worlds” is a phrase from a Hindu sacred text that was quoted by J. Robbert Oppenheimer after witnessing the first nuclear explosion on July 16, 1945. Dubbed the father of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer came to see this as the inevitable end of humanity and was motivated to be a spokesman for nuclear arms control. His stance ran counter to US government interests in the second half of the 20th century, and therefore he was publicly ridiculed with a 1954 security hearing promoted by Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and his greatest political enemy. Strauss would see the consequences of his actions in 1958 when he was rejected by the Senate for his appointment as secretary of commerce, in large part due to the disapproval of the scientific community.

The events behind these three moments set the pace for "Oppenheimer," the twelfth film by iconic director Christopher Nolan and probably his most ambitious project. It stars the peerless Cillian Murphy as the brilliant American physicist who led the Manhattan Project. What Nolan achieves with this work cannot be classified as anything less than brilliant and historic. The commitment to practical filming, the commitment of the cast and a narrative structure that boldly balances between a political thriller and a judicial drama: these three elements result in a film of mythical proportions that maintains a captivating pace throughout three hours, to end up leaving an ominous feeling about the future of humanity.

From the bomb to the man

It's ironic how years or decades can be spent, using knowledge accumulated over millennia, to build something whose goal is mass destruction in seconds. The elaboration is as fascinating as the result is terrible, and that irony is the essence of “Oppenheimer”, which avoids being an apology for war without detracting from the monumental achievement of the Manhattan Project. The production aims to recreate how epic it was to build a city in the desert to bring the bomb to life, and effectively conveys the feeling of witnessing how history is written.

Nolan is synonymous with elegance and for this film he seeks to represent the perspective of the world in the mind of a brilliant man, who observes it in terms of atoms and reactions. The visual is a delight, the cinema gives a magical touch to physics. Those who look forward to the detonation of the bomb will be well rewarded with a sequence that pushes anticipation to the limit, in large part to Ludwig Göransson's somber soundtrack.

But these moments are secondary to what is the true heart of the film: the actors. There is an emphasis on the character of its protagonist as a genius who cannot resist the promise of changing the course of war and humanity, blinded by an ambition that makes him ignore fatal consequences until it is too late. That contrast of idealism and regret is what makes Murphy's performance titanic, letting her face reveal the horror as she realizes the irreversibility of her actions.

But Murphy is not alone and although Nolan's filmography has incredible casts, this time his weight is felt in particular. Dialogue and monologues are prominent in the court drama narrative, so much of the film focuses on a dynamic of intellect and power, deterrence or prosecution. An honorable mention goes to Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer, with an unforgettable two-minute scene. Also, worth mentioning is Jason Clarke as the intimidating Robert Robb and, not least, Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, whose perspective is portrayed in the black and white sections of the film. Downey Jr. returns from the jaws of Marvel, and his welcome will likely include an Academy Award for portrayal of a man jealous of the power and genius of others.

Jennifer Lame's editing also deserves awards. Maintaining the attention of the audience for three hours, with different temporalities and perspectives of the same events, is not something minor, and it is thanks to the edition that this turns out to be one of the most digestible works of the director in terms of structure, something necessary before such a dense theme.

Read also: Ranking of Christopher Nolan's Films While you Wait for the Premiere of "Oppenheimer"

An inevitable ending?

Nolan's recent work has focused his attention on two themes: science and war. It is a paradox of the epitomes of human capabilities, creation and annihilation, which in "Oppenheimer" are linked to account for how our best qualities become the catalyst for self-destruction. The absurdity of the political panorama of the 20th century is presented, the secrecy of the beginnings of the nuclear race that today keeps the world in suspense and in a fatalistic tone suggests that the wave of that bomb dropped 79 years ago continues to expand.

In a career spanning more than 20 years, Christopher Nolan has made some definitive cinematographic works of the 21st century, and naming “Oppenheimer” as one of his best works is no small matter. What makes this point is that Nolan not only keeps it entertaining with impeccable technique, but he also does so with a dark and important story about the self-destructive nature of a species that cannot resist power, an ambition that dictates the pace of a countdown to an inevitable end.

"Oppenheimer" has become a milestone in the history of the seventh art for many reasons, including the Imax tapes of 17 km and 200 kg and the Barbenheimer phenomenon. But it is its scale for such a dark story that makes it transcend and make it an event that today's movie lovers are fortunate to witness on the big screen.

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