It hasn’t taken long for Christopher Nolan to become an event director. It probably began when he took charge of his Batman trilogy that begin in 2005 with Batman Begins, that saw him broaden his cinematic horizons, quite literally.
His latest continues that trend – and love - for IMAX, but it also marks a new direction, as he delivers his first biography with the story of the father of the atom bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Studying in Cambridge, England is the young J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy). The American doctoral student is considered having potential, but not a great grasp of practical matters in the lab.
It’s not long after that he returns home, where he continues his work on quantum mechanics, where his reputation as a genius in his field grows.
In 1942, he’s approach by U.S. Army General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) on behalf of the government, to head a special department known as the Manhattan Project, to develop a secret weapon to not just end the Second World War, but all wars.
So he builds a scientific facility in the middle of the dessert, Los Alamos, New Mexico, creating a weapon – an atomic bomb – under the codename Trinity.
With most of their work based on theory none of the men involved, including Oppenheimer, new exactly what kind of deadly legacy they were creating, but the world was about to find out.
Even though Nolan shot his feature on film, which is a rarity these days since the advent of digital cameras, as well as IMAX film, this is his most insular and intimate film to date.
Unfortunately it’s not a full biography, only covering the headline moments of his career and life, so it doesn’t feel as thorough as it could. Nolan also neglects to cover him in his later life, mostly ignoring the consequences of his actions, and simply ignores to inform the audience of when he died. It’s almost as if he’s content with fleecing the man’s story of all the juicy bits, and leaving out what would be relevant and useful information. It transpires he developed throat cancer and died at the relatively young age of 62, still married to Kitty, played by Emily Blunt in the film. But this information comes by way of Wikipedia and not Nolan; with a running time of three hours, you would have thought he would have ample time to fit it all in, but apparently not.
Instead he focuses far too much on a closed hearing with Oppenheimer himself, and a Senate hearing for Lewis Strauss , played by Robert Downey Jr. which in truth, both drag on a bit.
Murphy’s portrayal however is impressive, as are all the acting talent involved, which reads like a veritable Who’s Who.
But there’s an elephant in the room. An elephant that has traipsed through a number of the director’s films, ironically making less noise than he does, and that’s to do with sound.
Once again Nolan chooses to make it as difficult as possible for an audience to actually hear virtually any of the dialogue. And in three hours, there is quite a lot of it.
In virtually every scene, Nolan underscores using music provided by the talented Ludwig Göransson, who not only produces the music for Disney’s The Mandalorian as well as Nolan’s own Tenet. The issue is the music, regardless of how good it is, is constantly competing with the dialogue, to the point where it's an actual strain to hear what's being said. Which isn’t ideal for a dialogue-heavy film such as this. It is both completely unnecessary and most definitely unacceptable. And yet Nolan persists in doing exactly the same thing in every film.
Ultimately it takes a massive amount of shine away from what is, in places, still an impressive film. But it could have been so much better if we could have heard most of the bloody thing.
The film no doubt benefited from the savvy marketing being released on the same day as Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, but make no mistake, this is not a classic.
But there is a suspicion that Nolan’s pretentions for cinema are getting the better of him, at an audience’s expense. His use of sound, using black and white stock for present day footage and colour for flashbacks etc, all end up being distractions from the story itself. And you would think there was enough there surrounding the life of the man who created the ultimate weapon of mass destruction known to man, without the need to resort to such attention seeking devices. Sometimes, less really is more and someone should be brave enough to let Nolan know that.
It may well improve from a second watch at home, with the subtitles on, but that kind of defeats the purpose.
It’s film that deserves a sense of subtlety, but sadly is anything but.
And as far as event cinema goes, this is, bar a few set piece scenes, mostly uneventful.