Monday, September 18, 2023

Oppenheimer: The Center Does Not Hold

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer.

Christopher Nolan makes his bid for movie posterity with Oppenheimer. His three-hour biographical epic of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist known as the father of the atomic bomb, is culled from a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, and transpires over more than three decades (from the mid-1920s through the late 1950s). Many of the roles, both major and ancillary, are taken by familiar, talented actors, and the film, shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema, who has lit all of Nolan’s films since Interstellar, is beautiful to look at. Oppenheimer is a serious effort but not, I have to say, a very good picture, though it contains one section, focusing on Trinity, the first detonation of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1945 – the culmination of the research conducted by the Manhattan Project under Oppenheimer’s direction – that belongs in a good picture: it’s taut, gripping and suspenseful.

As a director and as a screenwriter, Nolan doesn’t have the gifts for epic filmmaking, or for assembling a complex political and historical exploration. Centrally, he can’t tell a story clearly. The movie has a double frame: the 1954 Atomic Energy Commission Personal Security Board hearing that resulted in the revoking of Oppenheimer’s security clearance because of his alleged left-wing connections and his post-war stance on nuclear control and the development of the hydrogen bomb; and the 1959 Senate hearing on Eisenhower’s nomination of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), former head of the AEC, as Secretary of Commerce. These two events, both of which result in defeat for the subjects of the inquiries, are linked. Strauss, who had hired Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) to head the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where Strauss was a trustee, worked behind the scenes – in the movie’s view, out of petty revenge for slights he laid at the scientist’s door – to insure that he’d lose his clearance. And as Nolan presents it, Strauss’s dishonesty and manipulation are brought out during the debate over his nomination and function as a case of chickens coming home to roost. But surely, in a movie about Oppenheimer, they don’t, or shouldn’t be given, equal weight, though it’s easy to imagine presenting the second as an ironic coda to the first. If Nolan understood narrative structure he’d be able to see the difference. If he thought like a dramatist he’d recognize that presenting the material in linear fashion would be far more compelling dramatically.

God knows it would be clearer and more interesting to watch. The movie keeps crisscrossing between two big committee rooms where important-looking men in business suits interrogate witnesses; you can tell them apart because one is shot in black and white and the other in color, but that choice feels like it was made in desperation. The main problem, though, is that we have to fight the intercutting to put together a complicated chronicle in our heads that is variously set in Germany in the twenties (where Oppenheimer is completing a doctorate in physics at the University of Göttingen), Berkeley, where he teaches in the thirties and early forties, New Mexico during the Second World War and Princeton in the late forties. The flashbacks, most of which belong to the Oppenheimer frame, aren’t necessarily in chronological order, and Nolan doesn’t try very hard to situate us. I saw the movie shortly after its release and went back again a month later after I’d decided I wanted to write about it, and I still had to look up the placement of Oppenheimer’s Princeton years in his life story because I couldn’t figure it out from looking at the screen. Nolan is notorious for confusing audiences with what a friend of mine refers to as “time fuckery”; almost everyone I know who saw Dunkirk complained that they couldn’t follow the sequence of events, which cross-cuts the actions of three disparate groups of characters in sections that cover three different durations (one week, one day, one hour).

Oppenheimer is densely populated, and I couldn’t have told you who a third of the characters are without checking the cast list on IMDb and then cross-referencing them with their bios in Wikipedia. It’s possible that some of them are identified in the movie, like the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Isidor Rabi (David Krumholtz), who served on the AEC, but I missed the pertinent information because Nolan doesn’t underline it and my brain couldn’t take everything in without a little assistance. I realized halfway through one scene at Los Alamos that an actor seated behind a table was Matthew Modine but I had no idea whom he was playing, and he showed up again only once. (Modine’s character is Vannevar Bush, who ran the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development during the war.) Alden Ehrenreich is prominent in scenes with Downey during the confirmation hearings, so I assumed he was playing a historical figure, but the credits list him only as “Senate Aide.”

Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss in Oppenheimer.

Nolan has cast one of his favorite actors, Cillian Murphy, as Oppenheimer. Murphy has toiled hard at physicalizing Oppy, and he has the knack, like so many English and Irish performers, of mastering an American accent. But skillful as he is, I’ve always found Murphy to be a dull actor, and he can’t anchor a three-hour movie. For one thing, as specific as his physical and vocal work may be, his emotional choices are vague and generalized. There are countless shots of him looking pensive or troubled, but they’re more or less interchangeable, and his acting has so little color or vitality that it’s a form of sensory deprivation for the viewer. When he shares the screen with Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves, who oversaw the Manhattan Project on behalf of the Pentagon, your eye is always on Damon, who gives a sly, witty performance and carries himself like a man who wears his power with easy comfort. When Oppy is talking with Isidor Rabi, it’s Krumholtz you watch, for the way he incorporates the character’s distinctly Jewish warmth and humor – very differently from the way he played the German-Jewish main character on Broadway (superbly, I thought) last season in Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt. When Oppy and Josh Hartnett’s Ernest Lawrence, who ran the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley and later joined the Manhattan Project, are arguing – Lawrence wants the men and women working under him to leave their leftist politics out of the lab – Hartnett, who has become both a charismatic performer and a precise, economic actor, dominates the screen.

Not everyone in the large cast is as lucky as these and a few other supporting players, like Tom Conti as Albert Einstein and Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr, who manage to infuse their few moments on camera with personality and embellish barely sketched-in characters. I did enjoy Remi Malek as David Hill, a Manhattan Project alumnus who delivers the testimony that, in Nolan’s version, finishes off Strauss’s bid for Commerce Secretary. But Gary Oldman fades into his make-up as Harry Truman, and Casey Affleck is miscast as Boris Pash, a military intelligence officer whose subplot is particularly difficult to follow. Some significant characters – like Oppy’s brother Frank (Dylan Arnold) and Haakon Chevalier (Jefferson Hall), whose friendship works against him during the security hearings – don’t make much of an impression. On the other hand, there’s too much of Benny Safdie as Edward Teller and Jason Clarke as the rabidly anti-Communist Roger Robb, whom Strauss plants on the committee at those hearings to undermine Oppenheimer; Nolan allows both actors to chew the scenery.

In the meatiest role he’s had in years, Robert Downey walks away with the picture – or nearly. He underplays with precision and an almost high-comic elegance while suggesting unmistakable gravitas. But in the last hour the film turns him into a melodramatic villain, which is a pity because Downey could certainly play Lewis Strauss’s malevolence and get at the bitterness and resentment against Oppenheimer that undergird his actions without the melodrama. Ostensibly Emily Blunt has the third most important role, Oppy’s wife Kitty, but Nolan has written her as a clichĂ©, the long-suffering wife of a celebrity, and she gives perhaps the only unfortunate performance I’ve ever seen from her. Nolan appears to be especially flat-footed when it comes to directing women: think of Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Dark Night – another actress I would have thought incapable of acting badly. Florence Pugh is even worse as Oppenheimer’s mistress, Jean Tatlock, but I’ve never cared for Pugh. Her scenes with Murphy are the low point of the movie, especially the embarrassing post-coital exchange where he tells her he can’t see her any more while they’re seated, naked, across the room from each other. (It’s hard to believe that a director would look at that scene in the editing room and not opt to excise it on the spot.)

To be fair to Cillian Murphy, his part is weirdly underwritten, considering the movie is supposed to be about Oppenheimer. We get the trajectory of his life (despite the jigsaw-puzzle narrative), including his political reversals, but we never get a real sense of who he is – of how he feels about the two women he’s involved with or if he thinks of himself as a hero and savior after Truman drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or is just acting the part against his own conscience. And the film definitely shortchanges the issues surrounding the development of the bomb. Like most treatments of the consequences of the Manhattan Project – Jon Else’s 1981 documentary The Day After Trinity, for example – Oppenheimer is on the side of humanism; it even paints Truman, in his one scene, as a callous egotist. (The best spokesperson for the pragmatic side may be Paul Fussell in his essay “Thank God for the Atom Bomb.”) But Nolan’s preoccupation with formal concerns – the way he plays with the narrative, the acid-trip imagery in the generalized explosion sequences – has the strange effect of shoving both the issues and Oppenheimer himself into the background. That’s not very admirable; it’s actually rather offensive. The only Christopher Nolan movie I’ve ever liked is The Prestige, his 2006 movie about rival magicians, which is strikingly better written and directed and acted than anything else he’s done. (He was one of three screenwriters.) But unlike Oppenheimer or Dunkirk or Interstellar or those loathsome Dark Knight pictures, The Prestige doesn’t make a pass at profundity. It’s merely an ingenious puzzle, and Nolan loves puzzles a hell of a lot more than he cares about story or theme or character.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment