Oppenheimer, an intimate odyssey as staggering as it is trying (review)

Oppenheimer: an intimate odyssey as staggering as it is trying (review)

Less a biopic on the “father of the atomic bomb”, than a case study on an elusive being, Christopher Nolan goes to the end of his logic, until wear.

Puddles of water blurred by a fine rain. The world vibrates imperceptibly at the feet of a giant, Robert Oppenheimer (1904 – 1967), ” the father of the atomic bomb “. His serious face pierced by two strangely intense blue eyes (the magnetic Cillian Murphy), appears from a low angle. A pensive face before these mini-cataclysms. A slight movement of the head triggers a ballet of luminescent fractals whose intensity is increased tenfold by a vibrant sound design. The data of the Promethean Calvary are then printed: For stealing fire from Zeus and giving it to men, Prometheus is condemned to live chained to a rock. So things start like this. Almost everything is said. “Fusion” then “fission”, key words with double meanings immediately displayed on the screen, structuring both the temporal and dramatic division of the story and that of its hero, who like an atom seems destined to a form of annihilation. We thus pass from a relative harmony capable of concretizing an ideal (if indeed the development of an atomic bomb is such), to uncontrollable chain reactions capable of denaturing the surface. Oppenheimer is a tormented being, plagued by constantly renewed guilt. A story with consequences so great that it is, in fact, myth. “Oppie” is in the eyes of Christopher Nolan, nothing less than “ the most important character in the history of mankind. If we consider that the man in question very nearly reduced this humanity to ashes, the projection of the filmmaker is not insane. Filled with doubts and regrets, Oppenheimer asserted, lucidly: Now I have become death, the destroyer of worlds. The eagle that devoured his liver every day on his rock was both this heckled prescience and the relentlessness of the American authorities anxious to put offside this supposed communist sympathizer suddenly seized with remorse in the face of the fire that he had lit himself.

We are at the end of the Second World War, the United States is gleaming, the country has dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, convinced that it has thus “pacified” the world. Oppenheimer, less enthusiastic, prefers to warn Truman that a Cold War is to be feared and that an agreement with the Soviets around nuclear power could avoid it. Sacrilege. This mood breaker, this breaker of the American dream, must be removed as quickly as possible. This is the red thread of Nolan’s film, inspired by the book by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Robert Oppenheimer, triumph and tragedy of a genius, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. More than a biopic (no dive into childhood, no biographical haunts), Oppenheimer is intended to be a film of a trial or rather a parody of a trial, around an accused cornered by an FBI report as thick as a mushroom cloud. The story thus starts from a face and circles in the deep waters of the destiny of a brilliant physicist galvanized by his genius as much as he was wary of it. Courted by the great American and European universities, so far so close to an Einstein from whom he sought help that he would never get, this son of a New York Jewish businessman of German origin and a a cultured woman, was also a seducer, a smooth talker, “he tended to answer your question before you even asked it reads the aforementioned biography.

For Oppenheimer, Nolan’s teams invented a new type of film (video)

Inhabited staging

So here is a summer film of almost three hours on a cleaved and divisive character, as nebulous as his favorite field (quantum physics) can be for the layman. A blockbuster without stunts, voluntarily monotonous because often inaccessible (Oppenheimer remains a mystery) but which, by the grace of an inhabited staging (amazing editing, permanent destructuring of the story, unusual management of the rhythm …) manages all of even to captivate. Nolan declared, during a self-promo with a bit suspicious enthusiasm (it was a question, one suspects, of making people forget the “what’s the fuck” tenet): “ the spectators ofOppenheimer will almost be able to physically feel the nuclear explosion. Saying that, it’s a bit borderline, in fact, said sequence in the plains of New Mexico – in Los Alamos, Oppie’s “Asteroid City” – is staggering. The filmmaker is betting here that this “embedded” experience of the A-bomb will be enough to bring marvelized barges into dark rooms and make them forget the miles of palavers and scientific speeches. Nolan is crazy enough to believe it. Crazy enough especially to take himself for his model: “ I wrote the script in the first person, which had never happened to me before. » he recently confided to Total Film journalists, before continuing falsely humble “I don’t know if people in the business usually do this or if I tried something new. LOL.

dryness of feelings

In wanting to come close to the opacity of beings, the filmmaker however comes up against the wall of the indecipherable and deploys a certain misanthropy, an almost absolute dryness of feelings. Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, however impressive from start to finish), never tries to make himself more generous than he really should be. If the characters cross, no real interaction allows to build a semblance of emotional bond. It should also be noted that one of the suspense of the film is based on an informal meeting between Oppenheimer and Einstein, the content of the supposedly fundamental exchange of which remains inaccessible to the simple observer. This blind spot (revealed in fine) is the only one in a scenario that also struggles to experience all situations to the end, even if it means exhausting them (and us). Let no one come and tell Nolan that he is not clear!

In this fifties context, the female characters are relegated to the periphery. However, two of them gave a glimpse of tremendous dramatic potential: Katherine Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt), an unobtrusive wife, a notorious alcoholic but with an overwhelming strength of character, and Jean Taltock (Florence Pugh), the neurotic and suicidal lover. The film prefers to follow in parallel the less exciting track (furnished moreover, in a slightly fake black and white) of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr, unequal), politician with excessive ambitions, who will turn his back on the dark hero when contrary winds will come to disturb its march towards the heights of power. We also meet Matt Damon, perfect as a redneck soldier in charge of chaperoning the genius and optimizing his research. But since all that has to end somewhere – fusion, fission suddenly intertwined – we remain on the haunted face of Oppenheimer, with his distress, his delusions, his regrets. Witness these formidable sequences with an exacerbated duality: outside Oppenheimer delivers a patriotic speech of facade, inside, a dark and reconfigured vision of a devastated world. “Oppie” is a broken, misunderstood, lonely man. Hopelessly alone. Us with him.

By Christopher Nolan. With: Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh… Duration: 3h01. Released July 19, 2023

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