“Oppenheimer”: a movie that asks the important questions

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Lead actor Cillian Murphy in 2014. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Tim Cornbill. CC BY-SA 2.0

The movie begins with the quote “Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man,” begins “Oppenheimer.” “For this, he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.”

The atomic bomb changed the world forever and with such a change questions must be asked: what are the moral qualms of a weapon of such mass destruction? What does one do with sheer destructive power? Moreover, how can someone live with creating something that could destroy the world?

Based on the biography “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, “Oppenheimer” centers around the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, from his rise to power and his fall from grace. The movie is not told in chronological order and instead weaves in and out of different areas of Oppenheimer’s life, covering his time before, during and after Los Alamos – the place where the atomic bomb was created.

For the most part, “Oppenheimer” is a fine piece of work from Christopher Nolan. I enjoyed watching it in theaters on IMAX. The event was like no other. I was impressed with many different aspects of the film, and partially disappointed in others.

The acting in “Oppenheimer” is phenomenal. Cillian Murphy delivers an excellent performance as the titular character. I saw the moral battle playing in his soul just by looking into his eyes and a whole range of emotions played out. Emily Blunt and Matt Damon both gave stellar performances as Kitty Oppenheimer and Leslie Groves, respectively.

But the most notable performance was that of Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss. As someone who knows him primarily for playing Iron Man, I never took him seriously as an actor until this movie. Just as I believed Murphy truly embodied Oppenheimer, so I believed Downey Jr. truly embodied Strauss. The anger, envy and contempt of Strauss was laid bare for all to see The performance could not get any better.

The visuals were also equally as incredible. Even more so because there was no CGI, which made the movie experience all the more real. Watching the Trinity Test (the first test of the atomic bomb) on the big screen was an amazing experience I can barely describe. You must simply see it for yourself.

My main problem with “Oppenheimer” is that I was very confused upon the first watch and I had to watch the movie a second time to understand the plot. I should not have to do that. The reason I was confused was primarily because of the nonlinear narrative.

There is an art in making a story told in non-chronological order and having the audience understand it. I know that it is art because I have watched many excellent movies which are presented in a nonlinear narrative. The master of this art in filmmaking is Quentin Tarantino whose movies such as “Pulp Fiction” and “Kill Bill” can be comprehended by audiences even though they are not told in chronological order.

I know that Nolan could have done better with this aspect in “Oppenheimer” because he himself made an excellent movie told in reverse chronological order called “Memento.” In fact, this reverse chronology of “Memento” was essential to the story as the central character, Leonard Shelby, does not have the ability to create new memories.

Therefore, I am following Sheby’s state of mind as each scene plays and I have no clue how Shelby landed himself in a certain situation until the next scene goes further back in time. The premise of “Memento” was simple and easy to follow, and it worked as a movie with a nonlinear narrative because Nolan did not overdo it.

In “Oppenheimer,” he did; as a result, the movie feels too much and too long. Here’s an example of the confusion I had with “Oppenheimer:” One moment, there’s a congressional confirmation hearing for Lewis Strauss, the next, a private hearing for Oppenheimer, which then cuts to his time at Los Alamos and then cuts back to his college days.

There was no need to make a story as complex as the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer even more complicated with a non-chronological set up. A good rule of thumb for making a movie is that less is more.

But even so, “Oppenheimer” is a movie worth seeing because it raises hard, uncomfortable questions about the atomic bomb and its impact on the world through the eyes of its creator.

These questions are not raised in a way that feels politicized. You get to decide the answer for yourself. That is the best part of going to the movies, a shared experience that challenges you as an audience member to think critically about the world around you.

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