OK, I haven’t seen Barbie. Nor do I have any intention of doing so, even it if shows up for free on a streaming service. My only…ah…exposure to Barbie was in the Toy Story franchise, where she was basically a third-stringer. But Barbie was a apparently big deal for years for young girls, who are now all grown up and yearn for nostalgia wrapped around some new-fashioned man-shaming.
But I did see Oppenheimer in my local IMAX, which is nowhere near the top tier of IMAX theaters, some of which feature premium setups and (in a few cities) laser-lit 70mm film projection. But the IMAX theater in my local multiplex is not among them; as far as I can determine it offers only the bargain-basement IMAX in 2K digital. My local AMC also features a Dolby Cinema. Given the choice I’ll always go for the latter rather than IMAX, though I might choose otherwise if I currently lived in Los Angeles where top-level IMAX is readily available. I did live there for 15 years before moving to the wilds of west Florida 8 years ago, but even when in LA I came to prefer Dolby Cinema. Unfortunately, however, I saw Oppenheimer early in its second week, and by then my local Dolby Cinema was showing another film. So IMAX it had to be. (When IMAX first expanded to its present relatively wide availability, film purists referred to bargain-basement IMAX installations as LieMAX!).
Even apart from the presentation, however, I was initially disappointed by Oppenheimer. It was 3 hours long and felt like it. What I expected to be the main story line, the development of the atom bomb that ended WWII, took little more than one-third of the film’s running time. But had I taken the film’s title more literally I might have realized that Oppenheimer himself, and not the Manhattan Project (the code name for the development of the A-bomb) was front and center. The film is, in fact, based on the book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer was a brilliant scientist and an unusual but successful choice to head up the scientific research leading to the A-bombs that ended WWII. That war had already claimed millions of lives by the time the 2 bombs were dropped on Japan. Without them, the war would have required an invasion of the Japanese home-islands, possibly lasting another year or longer and likely claiming additional millions of lives.
Most of the film centers on Oppenheimer himself, his associations, and his personal life. The story is complex. Despite the fact that he was never proven to have been a card-carrying Communist, many of his associations before the war (including his two wives) were certainly party members or very nearly so. This wasn’t unusual in the 1930’s, where some Americans, particularly the dreamy intelligentsia, idolized the then- nascent Soviet Union well before Stalin was known to be every bit as much of a hatchet-man as Adolph. Even the New York Times correspondent in Moscow during those years, Walter Duranty, sang Stalin’s praises. But Oppenheimer’s early associations came back to haunt him after the war when the relationship between the U.S and Soviet Russia was turned on its head head. As important as the film’s third act was to the story, however, it did run on too long and could easily have been shortened by at least 30 minutes.
But in thinking about the film afterwords I realized that I had been confused a bit by the plot’s structure. I initially forgot about director Christopher Nolan’s penchant for jumping forward and backward in time. The odd arrangement of the story annoyed me, and several times I found myself confused by the narrative flow. It’s a creative tic that doesn’t work for me, but now that I’m fully aware of it I won’t hesitate to watch the film again when it arrives on Blu-ray. I can then watch it without confusion or the added distraction of a mediocre IMAX presentation.
This isn’t a movie for children. A bright 12-year old might appreciate it, but is unlikely to sit patiently through all 3 hours. Nor will few of his or her peers. They simply won’t understand or follow the context, not to mention the fact that WWII doesn’t appear to register to most people born since 2000. In addition, there are also two totally unnecessary and gratuitous nude scenes in the film, plus a few F-bombs. The latter wasn’t done to excess, but at least two of them, as I recall, were spoken by Oppenheimer’s wives. Perhaps I’m naive (actually, I probably am!) but this jumped out to me in a movie that’s apparently concerned with historical accuracy. Casual use of such language is likely more common today than it was in mixed company in the 1930s and ’40s. Perhaps it was used here to insure that the film received an R rating, something of a badge of honor for today’s Hollywood. I wasn’t offended by it, but its anachronistic use did momentarily take me out of the film as I wondered what was the point.
Was this, as some have declared, Christopher Nolan’s best film? Not for me, though that’s not a slap as Nolan hasn’t yet made a bad film (though some say Tenet might be; it’s one of his films I haven’t yet seen). The production values and performances here were first rate across the board, and I suspect the movie will win a boatload of Oscars. But I’m probably the only person on the planet for whom Nolan’s best film is The Prestige, though on any given day I might swap it out for The Dark Knight (the middle and by far the best entry in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy).