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Oppenheimer by Nolan

Nolan's film Oppenheimer when at its best, is as good as cinema has ever been. I admit to writing this on the anniversarary of the dropping of the first bomb on Japan, which I consider a war crime and a human tragedy of the largest kind, as was the second bomb. I write this post with great respect for those who died or suffered then, and I know that the film itself seeks to expose, somehow, the sheer magnitude and moral toxicity of this invention - one which, as the film shows, could have burnt the whole world, not just Japan. Art can perhaps speak to the atrocities at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, or avoid them. Nolan's film obliquely references the horror - the inventor and the president both speak of guilt or innocence, neither seems to inhabit the space to fully comprehend their crimes. So why make a film about nuclear bombs, if the material is so powerful, so painful, so irradiated with historic guilt and shame? I suppose because of ambition, a desire to take on the largest themes and subjects, and do them justice. The truth is, those interested in the story of Los Alamos, atomic bomb development, nuclear spies, or the Teller H-Bomb, can find that in the BBC/PBS TV series from 1980, also titled Oppenheimer, or the many books, such as the one Nolan bases his screenplay on, that cover the same irradiated ground. What Nolan has done, in assembling the most stellar cast since Towering Inferno, or perhaps, more aptly, Kramer's 1961 courtroom/war epic about overeaching evil, Judgment at Nuremberg, is redefine what an epic biopic can be for an age now expecting spectacle. He has taken the Marvel and DC universes, with their stars and Quantum obsessions, and made them seriously adult. Certain of the scenes, especially when Robert is a young poetry-reading scientist dishevelled in Europe, or during the storm-swept build-up to the Trinity tests in New Mexico in 1945, or in the immediate aftermath during his sickening speech celebration, thrum with a dynamic musical pulse,a stamping of feet, while the screen threatens to break apart out of its atomic composure - the film itself trembles with latent destruction. The audience is, yes, immersed (IMAX helps) in the terrible beauty of the Atomic Age being born - the first moment humankind's genius became capable of destroying our entire world - something most film-makers' can only dream of. The fearsome nature of this creative-destructive hubris (Oppenheimer's mistress has an Eros and Thanatos issue herself we are shown) is entirely aesthetiticized by the moviemakking process. The acting, editing, direction, cinematography, location shooting, immaculate recreation of older technology, score, are all impeccable, though the talky bits (despite being witty and smart) can a few times drag. General Groves spent two billion, but Nolan also assembles a crack team and spends a lot of money to establish the analogy between the art of cinema and science of physics. Without descending into Oscar gossip, which, like with Schindler's List, another historical epic grappling with evil, seems besides the point, Murphy and Downey Jr, as well as Blunt, are potential winners this year, but other actors shine, not least Matt Damon, who has become the effortless everyman of American film much like Hanks. In a few moments onscreen, the pure intensity of the experience is remarkable, and raises the bar for other dramatic-historical films. This would not make sense on TV - it needs to be observed, and experienced, like being the famous cat in the experiment's box. You could see it on a small screen, but the size and power of the energy assembled and released would be a lesser version. The idea is to make a film as big as the subject - in this case the possible invention of the end of the world, arguably the "biggest story ever told" if not the greatest. Movies about inventors and scientists have, in the past, done well such as Madame Curie in 1943, 80 years ago (she won her Nobel for her radioactive work). This film could establish a new form of cinema, one more propulsive, and totalising. It is an exciting moment for Nolan, and for us, despite the film's dire warnings, hints of human evil, and ultimate pathos and horror. Can such material be responsibly transmuted in this way? Nolan seems to provide a moral reply to that doubt, in the final minutes of the film - there is something more important to speak about, after all...


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