Apparently, the only thing Christopher Nolan fears more than a straightforward plot is a woman with agency. “Tenet,” “Dunkirk,” and “Interstellar” are all evidence that the much-praised writer/director is either unwilling to or incapable of telling anything but a nonlinear, dude-centric story packed with dumb tricks. Emphasis here on “dumb.”

Because even though “Oppenheimer” is about smart people doing super science stuff, it is stupid. Laughably stupid. Repeatedly laughably very stupid. It has two of the worst sex scenes in history, the second somehow more hilarious than the first. It chops up an inherently compelling narrative into various threads that it then spaghettis into confusing, interweaving timelines with a billion characters and holds the mess up like a toddler making spaghetti art. Dumbest of all, Nolan becomes the first director to ever make Florence Pugh dull. Forget creating the atomic bomb, neutralizing Pugh may be the most dubious of all human achievements.

Biopics are always a daunting proposition, with potential to villainize or sanitize actual human beings in the very real world. History is malleable, just ask Florida. The act of creating a narrative film about J. Robert Oppenheimer means intentionally shaping how he will come to be publicly remembered and perceived. Nolan may be a beloved filmmaker, but he’s not who we should want putting his thumb on the scale that weighs how the scientific face of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is remembered.

Because, to be clear, “Oppenheimer” is a three-hour apology to its titular character for people being mean to him. You see, Nolan says Oppy felt very badly about helping to invent an object of unthinkable mass murder. That may well be true, but the film doesn’t care about unpacking anything substantial about arguably the most complicated moral question in modern history. It only cares about the burden of being a Very Special White Man. How dare anyone judge a creative genius whose imagination we can barely understand? It sure feels like someone read “Tenet” reviews before writing this one…

The film follows its titular genius (Cillian Murphy) as he first gets educated in theoretical physics and then gets asked by Matt Damon to build a really, really big boom-boom. There are more steps involved, and pretty much every high-profile actor gets to pop up and say hi for a minute. So do two (2) well-known actresses. That’s right, “Barbie” can’t be the most feminist movie of the year when Nolan has two lady performers in his latest, right? They even make eye contact during one very uncomfortable, unintentionally hilarious scene.

Knowing, as every adult does, that we live in a world with a nuclear arsenal, the “will they/won’t they” buildup to the bomb’s production is fairly inert. Articles leading up to the film’s release couldn’t stop describing how Nolan and his team simulated the giant explosion. What they did was, they exploded something smaller. And they filmed it. Wow, right? Anyway, with not even so much as a briefly spoken acknowledgement about the cancerous impact of the atomic testing and the disgraceful mistreatment of Native lands and populations, the whole arc of the bomb’s birth is a dud for various reasons.

The other plot thread that evolves simultaneously, despite occurring later, has to do with Oppenheimer’s de facto prosecution by a government agency at the hands of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr). This involves unpacking the salacious details of Oppy’s life, from his affair with a communist (Pugh) to issues with his alcoholic wife (Emily Blunt). The quasi-trial stuff is mostly great, with Downey Jr. dropping his career-best work. Maddeningly, it makes it so easy to imagine what a better movie may have looked like if Nolan wasn’t so invested in ensuring what should be his invisible creative hand was super-duper visible.

If only the film been concentrated, in organized fashion, on the legal/congressional stuff, making Oppenheimer not simply defend his stunningly long list of small, personal indiscretions but that pesky bigger issue of whether it was “morally just” to outrace the Nazis to an extinction gadget. Nobody should want to see graphic depictions and “trauma porn” of the bomb’s effects on its Japanese victims. Everybody should want “Oppenheimer” to be something more than naked US propaganda. This is history as told by the “winners” only, and it feels gross.

To be clear, this isn’t even saying that the ultimate conclusions about the bomb’s awful necessity or Oppenheimer’s flawed martyrdom that are reached here are wrong. This is only saying that the film is irresponsible in how it gets to that point, opting for a wormhole between its thorny question and simplistic answer. Goofy, nonlinear storytelling isn’t how a theorem is proofed.


Here’s what’s hard: Nolan is a hell of a filmmaker. His talent is undeniable. You know what? So is M. Night Shyamalan. “Oppenheimer” is sensationally filmed. The performances are mostly great, provided the role is a dude. It is easy to see why so many people are praising what’s here. But it is stealth stupid. It is sneaky simplistic. It is camouflaged dumb.

In “Tenet,” there’s a moment when the only woman who gets meaningful screen time is told that all of reality is going to explode, killing everyone that was or will be. She asks “including my son?” In “Oppenheimer,” after a montage in which a whole town for scientists and their families to live in is quickly built, Blunt’s character walks into her new home and says something like “There’s no kitchen.” It is meant to show a flaw in the men who built the town. It is so profoundly stupid as to expose the flaw in the film itself.

The only women with notable screen time in the movie use it to ask about kitchens and babies or have sex. The only lady scientist, who barely appears, eventually has a shouted line of dialogue about how radiation will affect her womb. Nolan’s filmography exposes this as a rule, not an exception. This, combined with the fact that the whole movie feels somehow like a weird montage forgiving Oppenheimer results in that rare situation in which this very review will look intentionally contrarian or part of the inevitable backlash major works of art all get nowadays.

It is neither.

This is just the opinion of someone who likes female characters to be written with all three attainable dimensions, who hates the “great man” theory of history, who questions the motives behind a historical biopic of this magnitude, and who very, very much greatly preferred “Barbie.”

Grade = F

Other Critical Voices to Consider

Tina Kakadelis at Beyond the Cinerama Dome says “It’s just baffling that in a movie that runs for 180 minutes there wasn’t time to allow these women to bee seen as substantial parts of his life. Nolan paints Kitty and Jean broadly and emptily. A cursory scroll through her Wikipedia will tell you that Jean was a writer and reporter for the ‘Western Worker,’ as well as a graduate of Stanford University Medical School. Kitty helped research cancer therapy and held a BA in botany.”

Emmanuel “E-Man” Noisette at The Movie Blog says “I feel like Nolan does so many things technically right in his movies that it’s really hard for him to make a bad movie. With that said, I wouldn’t say ‘Oppenheimer’ is one of Nolan’s best films, but his worst films are still better than most.”

Walter Chaw at Film Freak Central says “I wonder if it doesn’t seem better than it is because no real point of view is better than an entire boardroom of idiots with artless opinions. Anyway, ‘JFK’ is great. You should watch that.”

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