As I am now being inundated by awards speculation, I find it time to say something about one of the biggest films of the year. Oppenheimer is a good film. It’s a very good film. The acting is excellent across the board. I could go on praising it, and I would, except it has been greatly over-praised by too many, and there is non-stop talk of it taking Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards, which it does not deserve.
It’s not great, and it is nowhere near a masterpiece. I am bothered by these claims of masterpiece. It is competent filmmaking and excels in some areas. John Grisham is a good writer, but he isn’t Shakespeare. The Pelican Brief isn’t Macbeth. I think most reasonably literate people would agree. So I find it depressing that people reasonably literate in film can’t tell the difference between this and greatness.
I could start with the real flaws of the film. The music, for instance, is far too noticeable, far too on the nose, far too distracting, to be so uninteresting. You want to draw that much attention, then do what John Williams or Erich Wolfgang Korngold did. If you can’t do that, then be subtle. There’s also the editing – not terrible – but too many shots were held for a moment too long, and too many scenes lasted longer than needed. And of course, there’s the sound mix, but then it is Christopher Nolan, and honestly, for Nolan, the sound mix wasn’t that bad. I’m kinda proud of our boy for realizing this time that people should understand spoken words.
But the issue isn’t what’s wrong, because this isn’t a bad film. It’s a good film. The issue is what isn’t good enough for this to be a masterpiece. To be clear, there is no reason it should be one. Masterpieces are hard to come by. If people would quit drooling all over themselves, I’d be content to call it good and that’s a nice thing for a film to be. But, since that’s not the case, then it is time to bring up the obvious issue: Masterpieces are made by masters. Nolan isn’t one. He’s a skilled professional. He’s meticulous and knows how to make a film. But that’s it. He’s no Hitchcock, no Murnau, no Hawks, no Gance, no Huston, no Powel, no Curtiz, no Lean, no Kubrick, no Wilder, no Coppola, no Scott. Not even a Tarantino.
Going through his works I find Nolan’s shots are consistently fine. They do the job. They do what’s needed for the plot. They do nothing interesting, nothing of great artistic merit or brilliance. They are sufficient.
His mise-en-scène, that is the look of the frame, is competent. If a lab should look well used, then it does. If there should be papers strewn about, then there are. Anything extraordinary? No.
His use of color and lighting? Good enough. He doesn’t tell the story through those, or define characters, the way Powel or Huston or Lean did time after time. Instead, things look more or less natural and everything is visible, which is…fine.
Then he has his Nolan-isms. He still thinks it is clever just to tell a story out of order. And it occasionally is, particularly if you don’t keep doing it. He is well known for his…narrowness of focus… in that his world is nearly devoid of women. And he doesn’t have humans speaking to each other in his films, rather, at each other. Everyone just makes speeches all the time. That’s not necessarily a problem, though after two hours, I do long for something approaching a conversation instead of dueling lectures.
So that’s Nolan, and Oppenheimer is a very Nolan film. In it he does what he always does. I’d say he does it better, but still very Nolan. If anything is unusual, it is how simple and straightforward the story is. No one should be confused by anything here. I prefer a more complex tale, but I do appreciate that he kept relatively close to the facts. Grading on a curve of truthfulness of biopics, this is a real winner. His spoon feeding with the (very) occasional hallucinatory image was treating the audience like juveniles, but he didn’t do it often.
Which means this is one of Nolan’s better films. Perhaps his best, though I’m only saying perhaps. It is a competent piece of filmmaking. A fine work of edutainment. I’d even recommend it to people who aren’t in a hurry. But best film of the year? There is real artistry out there, works of imagination and depth, works that should be acclaimed, works that are masterpieces.
Oppenheimer is good.