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Film Reviews: Oppenheimer & Barbie

Arts Review2023-7-21By: Marc Glassman


The Bomb and the Bombshell

Oppenheimer & Barbie

By Marc Glassman



Christopher Nolan, director & script based on the biography “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

Starring: Cillian Murphy (J. Robert Oppenheimer), Emily Blunt (Kitty), Matt Damon (Leslie Groves), Robert Downey Jr. (Lewis Strauss), Florence Pugh (Jean Tatlock), Josh Hartnett (Ernest Lawrence), Casey Affleck (Boris Pash), Rami Malek (David Hill), Kenneth Branagh (Niels Bohr), Benny Safdie (Edward Teller), Dylan Arnold (Frank Oppenheimer), Tom Conti (Albert Einstein)


At nearly three hours running time, brilliantly shot in a combination of IMAX and standard 65mm, with a budget of $100 million and a cast which includes Oscar winners Gary Oldman, Rami Malek and Casey Affleck in small (but admittedly key) parts, one expects big things from Oppenheimer. And this film, by the immensely talented director Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception, Dunkirk), absolutely delivers. 

It is an epochal account of the man who is known as the “father of the atomic bomb,” J. Robert Oppenheimer, a complex, fascinating individual, who reached the heights of acclaim at the end of the Second World War but was destroyed, all too soon, by slander and innuendo–a tragic heroic figure. Nolan has made a riveting drama, which pivots on the first atomic bomb explosion, but moves back into the radical politics of the 1930s when Communism was fighting Fascism for control of the world, and forward into the 1950s when the Red Scare demonized those who had believed in socialism and liberalism, making them into subversives or dupes. 

Oppenheimer is about a scientific genius with humanist beliefs who rose above himself to head the Los Alamos Lab under General Leslie Groves, leading a group of tough-minded individualistic physicists to create the atomic bomb. Ironically, Nolan’s film, which is immense and complicated, may be at its best in Los Alamos, where the situation is simplest: everyone has to work together to make a weapon to end World War Two. Certainly, it brought out the best in Oppenheimer, a complex figure who often attracted and frustrated his friends, relatives and lovers. 

Oppenheimer picked the essentially empty Los Alamos, a gorgeous spot in New Mexico, only known to Indigenous people and a few American ranchers, as the proper place for his team to work—and he was right. The build-up to the first nuclear explosion—Trinity–in the vast landscape of New Mexico is handled brilliantly, with tension increasing and the weather absolutely not cooperating—there’s an immense rainstorm throughout the night—before the actual blowup occurs. Nolan handles it superbly, cutting out the sound as the explosion takes place: we see the fire and the mushroom cloud before the bursting of the bomb finally is unleashed onto the audience. 

Though not completely schematic, Nolan’s film can be divided into three acts. In the first, during the ‘30s, the brilliant but emotionally unformed Oppenheimer becomes a prominent physicist—a fine teacher and writer—while spending time with his strange, doomed lover Jean, as well as his brother Frank and wife Jackie, all of whom are Communists. Amidst the parties and rallies and university lectures in Berkeley, Robert contributes money to get Jewish scientists out of Germany and leftists out of war-torn Spain, but refuses to join the Communist party. A supporter of the Democrats and President Roosevelt, Oppenheimer calls himself a “New Deal Liberal,” which stands him in good stead when Leslie Groves recruits him to work on the mission that defines his life, the Manhattan Project, which leads to the creation of the bomb. 

While this first part seems random and diverse, and the second is concerned with Los Alamos and the bomb, the devasting third section, deals with Oppenheimer’s blacklisting. Here, the focus is on integrity, with a true villain, Lewis Strauss, out to destroy Oppenheimer’s reputation. As head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Strauss created a kangaroo-court trial into Oppenheimer’s politics, with the object of denying the man who created the atom bomb, a governmental security clearance. Losing one’s clearance was tantamount to calling a person a traitor: no one would hire you once that happened. This final act is conveyed with shuddering panache by Nolan, with the camera operating up close as friends and enemies offer their statements about Oppenheimer, with him there, forced to deal with anger and humiliation. 

In a coda to the third act, we witness the comeuppance of Strauss as he, in turn, becomes a loser, denied the position of Secretary of Commerce by an angry Democratic majority in Congress. Though it’s positioned in the film as a victory for Oppenheimer, and it was, nothing much changed for the man, whose life and role in society had been permanently besmirched by the right-wingers of the 1950s. It’s not hard to figure that Nolan wants to draw a parallel with the divisive politics that are taking place in the U.S. now—and realise that the fight for the rights of people to speak their piece is still important.

Oppenheimer features an extraordinary cast. Cillian Murphy is one of the finest actors on the globe; many of us have enjoyed his recent work as Tommy Shelby, the charismatic and deeply conflicted leader of a Birmingham underworld gang in the British TV hit Peaky Blinders, but his career encompasses extraordinary performances in Ken Loach’s award-winning account of the Irish War of Independence, The Wind that Shakes the Barley and perhaps most intriguingly, the role of a transgender child looking for their mother in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto. Murphy is faultless in Oppenheimer: he is that man. 

Nolan has a knack for finding the right actors for his films and so it is with Oppenheimer. The two women Oppenheimer loved, Jean, the psychologist who took her life and Kitty, the angry romantic alcoholic who married and stuck by him, are played by two great performers: Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt. There’s a fantasy scene during the blacklisting trial when Pugh’s Jean—long dead—is naked, on top of Murphy’s Oppenheimer making love to him, while starring defiantly at the stony-faced Kitty (Blunt). It may be the sequence in the film. 

Malek, Affleck and Oldman are excellent in their scenes but the finest—or at least showiest—performance is by Robert Downey Jr. who absolutely dominates his scenes as the villainous Lewis Strauss. You can’t keep your eyes off him; Downey is mesmerizing in the role.

Oppenheimer is too big and complex to be completely successful. There are too many scientists and Red baiters but this film is must-viewing. It’s the finest film of the year—thus far. 



Greta Gerwig, director & co-script w/Noah Baumbach

Starring: Margot Robbie (Barbie), Ryan Gosling (Ken), America Ferrera (Gloria), Michael Cera (Allan), Ariana Greenblatt (Sasha, Gloria’s daughter), Rhea Perlman (Ruth Handler), Helen Mirren (narrator), Will Ferrell (CEO of Mattel), Kate McKinnon (Weird Barbie), Issa Rae (President Barbie), Emma Mackey (Physicist Barbie), Dua Lipa (Mermaid Barbie), Kingsley Ben-Adir (Ken #2), Simu Liu (Ken #3), Emerald Fennell (Midge)


How do you solve a problem like Barbie? I’m sure Greta Gerwig was humming that old Rogers and Hammerstein classic while trying to figure out how to present the world’s most famous doll. Is she a sell-out, the perfect image for male fantasies? Or is she a feminist fantasy, living in her all-woman world, where the men—the Kens—are simply add-on best friends? Is she sexy even though she lacks genitals? Or really the ultimate blonde shiksa—vacant, WASP and brilliant—devised by the Jewish doll-maker Ruth Handler? 

One can imagine that Gerwig must have had some moments, when she wondered whether she’d embraced a poisoned chalice. You can’t simply satirize Barbie because so many people love her, including Mattel, who have invested money in making the film franchise work. It’s also crystal clear that many people—mainly women—love Barbie and see her as a key figure of their youth. They’re incredibly sincere, which will be evident this week as thousands and thousands of youngish women show up in cinemas across North America dressed in unbelievably tight pink dresses designed to show off what sexist types refer to as “their assets.” It’s all in good fun, of course—just dress up—but the fact that women in copious numbers will do it shows that the Barbie fantasy is still hugely important to many people.

Gerwig is too much of a feminist to just embrace Barbie despite the blonde doll’s immense appeal. After all, just as many women hate her as love her. That point is made in the film when Barbie makes her journey into the Real World and discovers that the smart, but definitely mean, girls at the local high school despise her for the stereotypical looks that have made her so successful and made their lives miserable. Gerwig has to find a way to humanize Barbie and make her grow as a character without undermining our pleasure in watching her being the ultimate naïve beautiful blonde. 

Barbie is a high wire act as a film, with Gerwig having to balance a critique of the beautiful  bombshell with a shameless embrace of her child-like qualities. It’s a tough artistic stance but she has to grab it and make it work. Happily, her main cast is perfect: one can’t imagine the film without Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken. They pitch their performances in a mock-childish manner, never straying into parody but never too “real.” Most of the rest of the cast are engaged in stunt cameos, with famous names like Issa Rae, Dua Lipa and Will Ferrell mildly over-acting in comic turns. But a few have things to do: Michael Cera is almost anxiously abrupt and angry as Ken’s failure of a best pal, Allan; Kate McKinnon is funny and just desperate enough to be engaging as Weird Barbie and Rhea Perlman is heartbreakingly real as Barbie’s inventor and surrogate mother, Ruth Handler. Best of all, there’s America Ferrera, who as Gloria, a disgruntled Mattel employee but Barbie supporter, drives what passes for a plot forward. 

Ah, yes, the plot! Barbie is unhappy in her own pink universe. She’s in the midst of an existential crisis and doesn’t know why. She and the ever-insistent Ken go to the Real World where they encounter male chauvinism, sexism, women who don’t understand Barbie and, ironically, the Mattel CEO and board who want to put our blonde back in her box. After a long chase, Barbie ends up home but only after Ken has reverse-engineered all of the Barbies into dutiful little creatures serving their men. The solution? Reality therapy, feminist style. I wonder how people will react to America Ferrera’s speech about what it’s like to be a woman. I felt like applauding but there was silence in the avant-premiere audience screening I attended. Did the women, resolute Barbie fans, love it? Hate it? I don’t know.

Greta Gerwig hasn’t really solved the problem of being a Barbie. But she and Robbie and Gosling and the amazing set designer and decorator Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer have done a wonderful job in creating a Barbie-verse. An Oscar or two is surely in the offing for them. A final thought: the true inspiration for this film is Pinocchio. Just like Geppetto’s puppet, Barbie wants to be a real girl—and in the end, she may get what she wants, which isn’t a nose.



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