Saturday, February 24, 2024

2024 Academy Awards Best Picture Nominee - Oppenheimer


Chris's review: Whether due to forward-marching age or an ever more stimulating environment, my attention span is suffering and Oppenheimer is three hours long. It drags in a few spots that might have been filed down more, but mostly it's worth it -- even having watched it twice in just three months. It's an obviously interesting and consequential piece of history, but the film's artistry is what really got me. I don't think I'm a very sophisticated or perceptive viewer, but the successful use of repeated motif and audio techniques stand out starkly from the average movie and even among the best picture nominations. The acting is great and desaturating the image when telling Strauss' story is neat technique.

It was cool seeing all of these super-famous scientists actually doing stuff rather than merely looking down at us from their pantheon. I bet knowing more about them as individuals would reveal a lot of fun easter-eggs. (Feynman playing bongos mostly off-screen is one I recognized, but I'm guessing there's a lot more to get from it.)

It is also interesting for me to consider how the movie demonstrates the shift in zeitgeist over time. I'm not any kind of pacifist and I don't necessarily think that dropping the bomb on Japan was morally bankrupt, but I am part of modern society and we have a certain shared reticence toward nuclear weapons. The movie deals with some of the scientists burdened with doubt, but there's this scene when Truman announces the nuking of Hiroshima where crowds of radio-listeners erupt in cheers. The illustration is stark -- of the attitude difference between a nation engaged in a just and pressing war and one dealing with some guilt almost eighty years later.

Cathy's Review: It's difficult to write about Oppenheimer.  It's a very good movie, and important.  It's also a very long movie (but it is mostly mesmerizing).  It's not a simple story; the topic is much too complex for simple or straightforward storytelling to do it justice, and the complicated interwoven structure reflects that. It is very well-acted (Robert Downey Jr. particularly impressed me with a restrained performance that both hid yet revealed his character's seething anger), and the cinematography and sound are nothing short of spectacular.

I firmly believe that a book or movie should be as long as it needs to be to tell the story and both films and books have been getting shorter in the last 15 years, and I'm glad this movie is bucking that trend. It took its time and told a big story, covering 30 years of a man's life and encompassing themes such as: what it is to be an American, McCarthyism, atomic bombs, politics, and morality. It also interweaves the careers of Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss on the Atomic Energy Commission.  The length ended up being OK, and the pacing was also pretty good, though not perfect, and my mind rarely wandered. It's an intense three hours, though, and both times I watched the movie, I did so over three nights - the intensity gets to me after a while, and there is no comic relief to break it up.

Perhaps the most challenging thing to describe is the structure of the movie. I prefer simple, straightforward storytelling, and this movie is definitely not that.  There are (I think?) three primary timelines; the first covers Oppie's student days in the 1920s through his time on the Manhattan Project and ending in 1947, the second covers the hearings in 1954 where they are considering revoking his security clearance. The final timeline takes place in 1959 during the senate hearings to confirm Eisenhower's appointment of Strauss to commerce secretary.   I believe that the main story is the second timeline - the security clearance hearings. The earlier timeline is told in frequent flashbacks, leading us to understand how the investigation came about, and the final timeline is depicted as flash-forwards, showing the fall-out (pun intended) of those investigations.  The three timelines were skillfully woven together, and I never would have believed such a structure could be successful, yet Christopher Nolan pulled it off.  

Along with Killers of the Flower Moon, and Maestro, Oppenheimer mixes black and white and color as a storytelling technique, and I think it does so the most skillfully.  It also turns the "color in the present/B&W to show the past" on its head, using the B&W to depict the latest of the three timelines. However, that is a coincidence - black and white was used when Lewis Strauss was the scene's main character, and color when the action centered on Oppenheimer.  The meaning is clear - Oppenheimer's worldview is complex and broader, and Strauss's is narrower and less flexible.  That was perhaps unfair - Strauss is portrayed as the villain, and I believe he was in this instance. However, the real Strauss did a lot of good in his life.

One criticism I've read was that the movie failed to depict the efforts of foreign governments and scientists to help move the Manhattan Project forward, and I disagree - foreign involvement was suggested very well, given the many foreign accents in the movie. These people were clearly not all Americans (at least, not initially).  Another was that it failed to depict the impact the Manhattan Project had on the local Native American populations in New Mexico, and this one I agree with. (They didn't bother to warn the locals to not drink the poisoned rainwater for a few days following the Trinity explosion).  That shouldn't have been ignored.  

(Pithy Reviews; and Rankings of 8 out of 10 nominees):

  • American Fiction (Brilliantly ironic smart comedy; Cathy: 1, Chris 2)
  • Past Lives (Excellent exploration of love and human connections; Cathy 3, Chris 1)
  • Barbie (Spectacular and sly doll's-eye-view of womanhood; Cathy 2, Chris 3)
  • Oppenheimer (Long, important, and explosive; Cathy: 4, Chris: 4)
  • The Holdovers (Very good teacher/student relationship story; Cathy 5, Chris 5)
  • Anatomy of a Fall (Beautiful courtroom drama; Cathy: 6, Chris: 7)
  • Killers of the Flower Moon (Important, badly-told story; Cathy: 7, Chris: 6)
  • Maestro (Gorgeous, well-acted boring slog; Cathy: 8, Chris: 8)

Currently unranked:
  • Poor Things (Not yet seen. Not available for streaming until Feb 27th)

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