Not the movie you want it to be
For anyone who knows a lot about Oppenheimer or the Manhattan Project, or who knows a lot about movies, this won’t be a very impressive film. Most people, however, know next to nothing about nuclear weapons, and Oppenheimer is a pretty good film for confronting them with the whole issue.
It almost never works to film a biography,—especially one this big. And there were three films competing for space here: Oppenheimer’s early life, Los Alamos, and the McCarthyite story. By the end I felt like the first two films had been made just to lead into the McCarthyite plot. Perhaps it would have been better just to make the courtroom drama they wanted to make? Far too much was crammed in. The interpersonal relationships were there for the sake of pseudo-thoroughness and nudity. Like Mr Turner it immerses you without always explaining, but it uses time-shift plot devices that get a little tiresome and drab. (Watch Mr. Turner to see a biopic that actually works.)
But again, that’s the sort of film this is, a condensed, dramatised biography, and it’s almost useless to critique it for not being another sort of film. Most people will find it to be good and learn something from it.
A lot of criticism is making a fuss about what really happened and who is really to praise or blame. The Manhattan Project did a job many people honestly believe needed to be done: to prevent the bomb falling into the hands of evil first. Yes, that’s evil—good old-fashioned world-dominating evil. It’s easy to logic-chop that decision now. I expect it felt a little more urgently necessary at the time.
Similarly, the idea that Oppenheimer “squandered” his “prestige and access” is overstated. Once the establishment had the bomb,—and they were always going to get it,—the rest was much less under his control. The fact that he was an irreplaceable talent in terms of making the bomb doesn’t necessarily make him quite as major a factor in controlling the weapon. The great man theory of history is true but only up to a point, something people forget when they blame Oppenheimer for not being a great politician as well as a great project leader.
What matters is that the film actually makes people interested in all these questions. Many people will get their primer from this and it’s good enough for that. All those detailed articles about this important area of history weren’t getting written any other way!
Cillian Murphy is great, so is Emily Blunt, so is Matt Damon, so is Florence Pugh, so is Tom Conti. But you begin to see the problem. Too many of the supporting cast were Kenneth Branagh types (he’s in it too) which never quite works somehow. A star in every scene? Too much for a mid-level movie.
Still, that’s the point. It’s a loose baggy monster, full of cliches and A-listers, and it is the sort of movie that it is: tweed suits and rain in Cambridge; loosened ties and dangling cigarettes in Congress. That’s what makes it a net positive contribution to the world: it’s easy to watch. It’s also what stops it from being the movie that people who know about Los Alamos or movies want it to be.
It could have been better, but it could also have been worse. Not bad for such an important topic.