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Is Oppenheimer the best film of 2023? Quite likely!

Kupferberg shows how she used to splice films.
Kupferberg shows how she used to splice movie films.

Oppenheimer has been playing at theaters successfully for the past few months. Now it is as available for home viewings on streaming sources and on disc. When it first opened on the big screen, there was an ad campaign: See Barbie and Oppenheimer on the same day! That campaign worked to some extent. Both films, totaling 5 hours of screentime, are mega hits, and people did screen them both in one back-aching marathon of a day! 

Whereas Barbie deals with a popular toy franchise that is fitting for the entire family, Oppenheimer strikes me as a film for a much more specialized audience. It’s a three-hour-plus feature about J. Robert Oppenheimer, 20th Century physicist who is the so-called “father of the atomic bomb”. He is the man who brought Quantum Physics to America. He also is the man possibly most responsible for the horrifying annihilation of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians who were murdered by the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It was an act which ended World War II and, some say, began the Cold War.

Christopher Nolan wrote and directed Oppenheimer, as well as served as a producer. In his early fifties, Nolan already has won close to 200 awards and more than 500 nominations for his film work. His work includes several entries in the Batman series, and the unique productions Inception, Dunkirk, and rather confusing but quality film Tenet. Early on, he made two independent features that successfully set conventional filmmaking on its cinematic ear. They are Following from 1998 and Memento from 2000. For any film fan interested in the storytelling process, these films are must-sees.

Recently I described Killers of the Flower Moon as brilliant. Oppenheimer also is brilliant. It will be interesting to see how the Academy’s coveted statuettes will be distributed in a few months.

My bet for Best Actor Oscar is Cillian Murphy who plays Oppenheimer. With a more subtle use of make-up than recently used in Golda and Maestro, Murphy embodies the physicist. Many extras are on disc and online which document the real Oppenheimer. Murphy is amazingly like him… and his acting throughout is impressive.

A Best Supporting role Oscar may go to Robert Downey Jr who appears as Lewis Strauss, a ruthless politician who will place Oppenheimer in a dark hole if it helps win him a Cabinet position. Another significant player is Matt Damon as General Groves who supervises much of Oppenheimer’s secret work during the war. While so many famous actors appear in this film in character roles, partially concealing their famous faces to make them blend into the storyline, Matt Damon never strikes me as anyone other than Matt Damon. 

Oppenheimer begins with a montage of surreal sparkling skies, fascinating visuals, and a Picasso painting of a woman’s abstracted face. How symbolic of the personality of Oppenheimer! He is an abstract. He is a superb physicist. He has the ear of an elderly Albert Einstein. He is a loving husband to Kitty, played by Emily Blunt, but has an ongoing affair with another woman. He is devoted to the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos to construct a bomb powerful enough to maim and kill massive numbers of human beings. Still he also has thoughts of the morality of the destruction, but those thoughts mainly come after the bomb has been dropped. 

It's not strictly a biopic, but we learn plenty about the thoughts and actions of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer says, “We are physicists. We imagine a future and our imaginings horrify us.” That may be the essence of Oppenheimer. Christopher Nolan has made an epic motion picture about a complicated man.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and retired appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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