It would be easy to tear apart Oppenheimer for any number of Nolan’s mechanical devices. The music is bombastic for nearly the entire three hour run time. The script jumps from one time period to another with no logical reason to do so. The characters exposit information at you like a Wikipedia page.

But all of this is a symptom of what I believe is the real problem. Nolan holds the camera at such a metaphorical distance, preferring his third-person omniscient and objective perspective (as he usually does). Nolan doesn’t let me see the subjective world of his characters, and in withholding that, he keeps us from getting close enough to any character to understand them.

I think the English major in Christopher Nolan prevents him from taking a more subjective cinematic approach. Nolan wants to be impartial, as though he is recording history. That works in The Dark Knight, when he is creating a myth that feels grounded in our reality. But it doesn’t work when the film is about our humanity, rather than our mythology. Nolan seems to think Oppenheimer is of mythical status, and that we will come to our own conclusions if we know the basic facts. But Nolan fails to understand that he has captured his Oppenheimer, not the Oppenheimer. And I want to know what and how his Oppenheimer thinks. The film shouldn’t be literally first-person, but a more first-person subjective perspective throughout would be hugely beneficial in understanding how any of these characters really feel.

After 180 minutes with these men, I feel detached from them, unsure what Nolan wants me to think. What’s his thesis on them? Should Oppenheimer be forgiven? Did he even do anything wrong? Nolan doesn’t say.

This sort of ambiguity can be a treat in a film like The Prestige, where Nolan gives me enough of each character’s real perspective that I feel I understand them. The ambiguity in a film like that comes from ambiguity about the men’s choices, not who they are. But here, I don’t know who these men are at their core.

I would have loved to see a version of this film directed by David Fincher, or Paul Thomas Anderson. I think they would have had something more to say about the American Prometheus.

That all being said, it’s not that this was bad. It was actually very competent. Despite the fact I don’t think Nolan’s core competencies lend themselves to this sort of film, I kind of like Nolan’s timeline jumps, in the sense that they force my brain to keep up and stay involved with what could otherwise have been tedious and repetitious biopic drama. And the music, while ridiculous, was also pleasant to listen to. Every actor involved was terrific. Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. were wonderful, and Emily Blunt acted with such verve and power that you wouldn’t even notice she had nothing to do.

It was also a real pleasure and privilege to see this projected on 70mm IMAX. I still fondly remember seeing 35mm projected everywhere growing up. When I was a teenager, there was a cheap theatre a five minute drive from my parents’ house that played everything on 35mm. I vividly remember seeing Inside Man there, for some reason. I didn’t realize, until today, how much I missed the pleasing contrast, film grain, brightness, scratches, and flickers of a good interpositive. It feels so alive. It’s the only visual experience I’ve had in a theatre that matches (or perhaps exceeded) the 80OLED in my small home theatre. It made me realize my long-time obsession with creating a home theatre experience that can deliver the creative intent of the director is borne out of my experiences as a boy, watching 35mm films at the local cinema. When it’s done well, it’s a magical experience. I was grateful that Oppenheimer ran for three hours, not because it needs that runtime (it does not), but because I was glad to have a chance to take in that experience again.

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