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Blu-ray Review: Oppenheimer

Making up for the regret of his Hugh Howards project being sidelined because of The Aviator and Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan turned his creative energy to adapting the biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer which in his mind is not a biopic per se but a mental exploration of the theoretical physicist as he went about creating the ultimate weapon of mass destruction and experiencing an ethnical crisis afterwards.  Nolan believes that the key to understanding Oppenheimer is a line from a sacred Hindu text known as the Bhagavad Gita that he famously quoted from, “Now ‘I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”  It is always hard to step into the shoes of a historical figure as a balancing act has to be achieved where the factually accurate has to meshed with what is considered to be cinematic and Cillian Murphy is up to the challenge; there is no need for shouting as he can do so much by doing so little as his eyes are indeed the windows to the soul of a tormented and cock scientific genius.  Equally compelling performances are Matt Damon as gruff, quick-witted and pragmatic military head of The Manhattan Project Gen. Leslie R. Groves and Josh Harnett as nuclear physicist who is able to see the political maneuverings taking place unlike his close friend Oppenheimer.

Instead of relying on shifting timelines, Nolan has instead decided to focus the colour portion of the movie from the perspective of Oppenheimer and the black and white section on Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss as he attempts to destroy the creditability of the man described as being “the father of the bomb”; the technique clearly defines the narrative and is not as distracting as one would have thought.  A standout achievement is the depiction of the subatomic universe which is hard to visually conceived but is done brilliant by Visual Effects Supervisor Andrew Jackson and Special Effects Supervisor Scott Fisher implementing a Skunk Works methodology of experimentation that would have made visual effects legend Douglas Trumbull proud; unfortunately their efforts will go unrewarded by the Academy Awards undermined by semantics where Nolan has stated that there are no visual effects as nothing was computer generated; however, in actuality real elements had to be digitally composited together to create the final still.  An interesting partnership that has been given deserved attention is the partnership between filmmaker and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema as both men seem to be in sync in pushing creative and technical boundaries especially with the IMAX format in particular creating a black and white 65mm IMAX film stock that had never existed before.

There is a valid criticism that some of the unsavory aspects of Oppenheimer’s life have been briefly touched upon involving a poisoned apple, womanizing, and a mysterious death that is implied to be murder not suicide.  And there is matter of not showing the devastation inflected upon Japan by the dropping of not one but two atomic bombs.  On this matter, one has to give leeway to Nolan as his focus is on the perspective of Oppenheimer who did learning about the bombings on the radio and this movie is far from being considered an instrument of American propaganda.  With the success of Dunkirk and Oppenheimer, Nolan is hitting his stride with exploring historical events and figures and it is nice to see him expand beyond the world of science fiction.  Ironically, it is appropriate that the Meet the Press Q&A panel discussion included with the Blu-ray consists of Nolan surrounded not by cast and crew members but leading scientists and the co-author of the biography.  There is a seven-part Making of… that chronicles the journey from preproduction, production and postproduction with an intriguing anecdote being the last-minute construction of the White House Oval Office. The accompany documentary To End All War: Oppenheimer & the Atomic Bomb puts everything in its proper archival context.  As for the image and sound quality, both are pristine and exacting.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada; he can be found at LinkedIn.

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