Welcome to WeeklyWilson.com, where author/film critic Connie (Corcoran) Wilson avoids totally losing her marbles in semi-retirement by writing about film (see the Chicago Film Festival reviews and SXSW), politics and books----her own books and those of other people. You'll also find her diverging frequently to share humorous (or not-so-humorous) anecdotes and concerns. Try it! You'll like it!

Tag: Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer:” Instant Classic

Head and shoulders portrait

Oppenheimer, c. 1944

Roughly one-half of the movie “Oppenheimer” focuses on the unjust way Robert J. Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, was persecuted after he performed so spectacularly in heading up Los Alamos and giving the United States the atomic bomb to end World War II in Japan. Oppenheimer was denied a security clearance during kangaroo court hearings in 1954, which basically meant he could no longer work in his field. He continued to lecture, but he was ruined.

Director Christopher Nolan has made one of the—if not THE—most important film in a very important career. This $100 million depiction of how the United States came to create the atomic bomb at Los Alamos is a dense subject. The movie was based on the 2006 Pulitzer Prize winning book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin (2005). Prometheus, of course, was the god who gave fire to mankind. For his crime he was chained to a rock and a vulture ate his liver each day, which grew back each night.

There are so many characters in the book and it appears that Nolan has attempted to wrap his creative mind around all of them and present every character onscreen. I applaud him for taking the dense text and transforming it into this three-hour epic film. The “L.A. Times” critic said: “Arguably Nolan’s most impressive work yet in the way it combines his acknowledged visual mastery with one of the deepest character dives in recent American cinema.”

At three hours, it’s a long film.

It’s deep, all right.

I felt fairly dense myself after trying to follow all of the twists and turns in the plot. I was especially ill-prepared when it comes to quantum physics, having dropped out of Physics in high school after two days. (That act was almost a replay of “Peggy Sue Got Married” where Kathleen Turner gets up from an algebra test and announces that she happens to know that she will never need this stuff in the future.)


The movie, shot on 70 mm film, has stunning imagery, especially in the early parts. (Later sections that deal with the security clearance hearings in offices are more black-and-white).  I was immediately reminded of the sweeping panoramas of filmmakers like Terrence Malick (“Days of Heaven,” “Tree of Life”), or David Lean (“Dr. Zhivago”), or Stanley Kubrick (“2001: A Space Odyssey”). No less a movie maven than author David Morrell commented on the different color palettes employed throughout the film.

The movie does not show the actual dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed 220,000 people, but, instead, gives us the test explosion in New Mexico, called Trinity. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema deserves Oscar nominations for his work. I disagree with the critic who said you didn’t need to see this one on the IMAX big screen. If ever there was an argument for IMAX, a film like this is it. (Last one I shelled out for IMAX treatment was the remake of “West Side Story.”)

If I may wander from the actual film’s words for a moment, supposedly Oppenheimer’s brother, Frank, also a nuclear physicist (who was also hounded from the field) said that his brother’s words after the test were, “I guess it works.” That is not in the film. But the lines that do appear, with Matt Damon and others articulating them, describe the after-effects of the Trinity test blast. Says a witness to the Trinity blast, “I hope you learned something.” To which Matt Damon’s character responds, “We learned we’re going to need to be lots further away!”

That’s about as close to humor as this film will get.


Cillian Murphy, who visually resembles Oppenheimer (and was actually up for the lead role in a previous Oppenheimer treatment), has worked with Nolan on 6 films. He uses his preternaturally large blue eyes to good advantage in portraying this tortured genius. Murphy supposedly subsisted on a diet of fruits, nuts and figs and very little else to keep the elfin stature of the real man intact throughout filming. In real life, Oppenheimer was said to often forget to eat, so that seems apropos.

The number of Oscar-winning or nominated actors in the film is a tribute to the director’s stature. I will probably accidentally omit someone, but Robert Downey, Jr., is bound to be an Oscar nominee for his pivotal role as Lewis Strauss, the two-faced politician who set Oppenheimer up for ruin because of personal animus and Cillian Murphy comes into his own as a leading man.

Others in the cast include Josh Hartnett in a welcome return to form, Gary Oldman, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Conti (who plays Einstein), Matthew Modine, Alden Ehrenreich, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Tony Goldwyn, James D’Arcy, Jason Clarke and Matt Damon. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some of the bigger “name” actors or actresses, but the wealth of talent is very deep when you’re casting an Oscar winner like Malek in a small part. All of the actors complimented Nolan, the mastermind.  Some critics have mentioned the relatively meager parts for women, as opposed to the meatier male roles. This “it’s a man’s world” depiction is true to the period, however.

Personally, I related to the four-times married Kitty (Emily Blunt), shown at her wit’s end with two squalling toddlers and stuck in the quickly thrown-together town built for the Manhattan Project scientists in Los Alamos. She mentions that there is “no kitchen” upon being shown the house for the first time.

Oppenheimer had his hands full with prima donna scientists who constantly quit or are in conflict, but Kitty was stuck in the house with two extremely colicky kids. Baby Peter is even taken to a friend’s house by his father when his constant crying becomes too much for the couple. Younger daughter Katherine (“Toni”), who was born at Los Alamos in November of 1944 is only seen as an infant in the film. She grew up and studied to be a United Nations interpreter but was denied a security clearance because of her father’s fifties security clearance hearings. This was 10 years after Oppenheimer’s 1967 death from throat cancer. In 1977, after that denial, Toni—who had inherited the St. Thomas cottage where her parents lived in later life, hanged herself. She left the family cottage and grounds to St. Thomas for the use of the public.


Oppenheimer was a World Class womanizer. Matt Damon has an exchange with Oppenheimer where he says, “You’re a dilettante, you’re a womanizer, unstable, theatrical, neurotic!” Oppenheimer’s affair with Florence Pugh (virtually unrecognizable with dark hair) portraying paramour Jean Tatlock causes much conflict in the film. The couple see each other shortly after Oppenheimer’s second child is born.

A troubled soul who ultimately committed suicide, Jean Tatlock WAS a Communist. This bit of personal information on Oppenheimer’s affair was brought out during the 1954 kangaroo court hearings with Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) sitting there to hear it, as Oppenheimer is interrogated by Jason Clarke (“Pet Semetary”). Still, Kitty and J. Robert stayed together.

Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.) pretended, to Oppenheimer’s face, to be a friend. He was as two-faced as they come and set Oppenheimer up for his fall, out of vindictive animus. Strauss (who was angling to become the Secretary of Commerce) felt he had been held up to ridicule during testimony that Oppenheimer gave. One dispute was over the exporting of radioactive isotopes to Sweden. The testimony used in the screenplay showed Oppenheimer saying that radioactive isotopes were “less important than electronic devices, but more important than, let us say, vitamins.” In the screenplay the comparison became “a bottle of beer.”

Another change from reported wording seemed to be in what President Truman (portrayed by Gary Oldman) actually said after meeting with Oppenheimer in the Oval Office. In the movie, Oppenheimer tells Truman that he feels he has “blood on his hands.” This is because of how conflicted Oppenheimer is regarding the death of 220,000 Japanese civilians when the bomb was dropped. Oppenheimer is urging (somewhat naively) international cooperation on the use of nuclear weapons, with an entity like the United Nations in charge. The generals and the Army and the politicians do not see it his way.

Truman, during a visit with Oppenheimer in the Oval Office, hands him a handkerchief after his  comment about regulating nuclear weapons internationally and then, when Oppenheimer walks out of the Oval Office, tells his Undersecretary of State, Dean Acheson, “I don’t want to see that son-of-a-bitch in this office ever again.” In the movie, the script has Truman saying, “Don’t let that crybaby back in here.” The profanity is probably more accurate, because Truman was known for his salty language. (They didn’t call him “give-’em- hell-Harry” for nothing.)


Oppenheimer vacillated over his feelings of guilt over the deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the dropping of the bomb he created.

After the successful drop. The screenplay has him telling a jubilant room full of Los Alamos employees, “It’s too soon to determine the results of the bombing, but I’ll bet the Japanese didn’t like it. I just wish we had had it to use against the Germans.”

At another point in the plot, this line appears, “Nobody knows what you believe.  Do you?”

Repeated throughout the piece, however, is this refrain:  “Just because we’re building it doesn’t mean that we get to decide how it is used.”

Matt Damon’s character, General Leslie Groves, tells Oppenheimer, “We’ve given them an Ace.  It’s for them to play the hands.” Another repetition of this thought: “The fact that we built this bomb does not give us the right or responsibility to determine how it is used.” All of these lines seemed to be justifications. After all, Oppenheimer was the American Prometheus, “the man who gave the Americans the ability to destroy themselves.” As Nolan says at another point in the screenplay which he wrote, “The day will come when people will curse the name Los Alamos.”


Leslie Goranssen’s music has been singled out as one of the best scores of the year (Oscar?.)  Terms like “masterful” and “mercurial” were used. I kept noticing how many of the scenes that had subtle background music would be totally unremarkable without his musical contribution. The use of stamping feet was unique and original.


For tension, structure, sense of scale, startling sound design (very impressive when viewed in IMAX) and remarkable visuals—not to mention the superb cast of actors—this one is going to be hard to beat. Yes, it is overlong and dense and made me feel woefully inadequate to understand the quantum physics discussed, but phrases like “Power exists in the shadows” were universal and I had to agree with the remark attributed to Wernher von Braun, who said, of Oppenheimer’s poor treatment by Lewis Strauss and the bureaucracy, “In England, Oppenheimer would have been knighted.”

On a personal level, since Wehrner Von Braun of Hitler’s rocket program ultimately ended up in Iowa City, Iowa (my alma mater) for the remainder of his life after fleeing Nazi Germany, I thoroughly agree.

I  have personally met and spoken with at least five of the actors/actresses onscreen in “Oppenheimer” at various film festivals, those being Gary Oldman (in Chicago for “Soldier, Sailor, Tinker, Spy” in 2011), Kenneth Branagh (in Chicago with “Belfast” in 2021), Casey Affleck (in Chicago with “Gone, Baby, Gone” in 2007),  Emily Blunt, in Austin at SXSW for “A Quiet Place” (2018), and Jason Clarke at SXSW for the remake of “Pet Sematary” (2019).

It seems fitting to end the review of this extraordinary film with the quotation from the Bhagavad Gita that Oppenheimer repeats, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” Hits Theaters

Director Christopher Nolan started tinkering around with the concept of time many years ago on a much smaller budget with 2000’s “Memento.” I liked it so much that, on a visit to the Twin Cities, I took a girlfriend and her husband to see it, my second time. It was unique, original, interesting, exciting and it didn’t run 150 minutes. It was even nominated for Best Original Screenplay at that year’s Oscars.

We’ve now been treated to “Memento’s” successors from Christopher Nolan: “Insomnia (2002); “The Dark Knight Trilogy” (2005-2012); “The Prestige” (2006); “Inception” (2010 (8 Oscar nods); “Interstellar” (2014); and Dunkirk (2017) (nominated for Best Picture and Best Director). No less an authority than Martin Scorsese said, “Christopher Nolan creates beautifully made films on a big scale.”

Nowhere is that scale more evident than in “Tenet,” which was budgeted at $205 million. It filmed in Estonia, Italy, the UK, Denmark, India, Norway, and cities such as Kiev, Mumbai, Washington, London, and Oslo.

The battle action scenes recall “Dunkirk.” The espionage plot summons memories of “Inception.” A whole lot of people talking through masks echoes “Bane” in The Dark Knight Rises.” (We learn that the reason so many people are wearing masks is that, if you go back through time, you have to take your own air and try not to come into contact with your former self.)

Oddly enough, I actually wrote an entire novel for Lachesis Press (Nova Scotia) where the hero travels back through time (“Out of Time”). The original plot premise was not mine, but a collaborator’s, who then disappeared, writing only one page of the entire two hundred and fifty and giving a whole new meaning to the term “collaboration.”

Time travel as a theme presented many unique difficulties (which I was on my own to figure out). Considering that I dropped out of Physics in high school after Day One, imagine how thrilled I was to read about wormholes and other arcane concepts. Even though I was a fan of television’s “Fringe” when it was on the air, love the works of Philip K. Dick, and have watched numerous films where characters travel through time (“Time After Time,” “Déjà Vu,” “Looper,” “Somewhere in Time,” “12 Monkeys,” et. al.). I remember asking that very question of my instructor in a screenwriting class dedicated to turning my novel into a film script.

“Can a person from the future confront himself in the past?” I asked.

My professor said, “Nobody has ever traveled through time, so do whatever you want.”

Wise words.

My hero (Dante) did confront and speak to himself in the past, and I will reveal one tiny spoiler by telling you that John David Washington confronts himself in a fight scene, because I know that revelation will not ruin the scene for you.

Playing around with time is not a new concept for Nolan.  “Memento,” his break-through film, did just that. However, it was far easier to understand what was going on in “Memento” than it is in “Tenet.”

My notes include this phrase: “Color me confused.”

One critic, in a waggish moment, commented on John David Washington’s facial hair by saying that it probably grew there while he was waiting for Nolan to explain the plot to him. The script line I wrote down indicated that the plot has to do with trying to prevent WW III by using a type of inverse radiation manufactured by fusion. (If that confuses you, join the club.) Another film critic, Mark Keronode, said of Nolan that he is “living proof that you don’t have to appeal to the lowest common denominator to be profitable.”

This, as it turns out, is predictive, as the film has already managed to eke out two and one-half million more dollars than it cost. But it is not the entertaining, original film that garnered Best Original Screenplay Oscar nominations for Nolan. World-wide, the film has made back its considerable investment. It had the potential to be a studio-bankrupting movie like “Heaven’s Gate,” but it is garnering appreciation for the scope of the project, at least, and is currently about breaking even, with a worldwide take of $207,500,000.

I’m not going to explain the opening scene, set in the Kiev Opera House, because to do so would be a spoiler, but suffice it to say that it sets up the first of many magnificent settings. I kept thinking of the tour of locations used in “Game of Thrones.” I wish there was such a tour of the various sets used in “Tenet.”

Others have said the non-stop action, coupled with the gobbledy-gook explanation(s), reminded them of a James Bond movie. To them, I say, “Fair enough.”  But with Bond you often got memorable musical themes like “Goldfinger’ or “Live and Let Die.” Here we are saddled with a pounding often-overly-loud and not-very-melodic score by Ludwig Goransson. [The composer’s name says it all.]

The cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema is gorgeous and the film does confirm that, as “Variety” said, Nolan is “the premier big-canvas storyteller of his generation.” “Tenet” also confirms Michael Mann’s verdict on Nolan as “a complete auteur” but the overly complicated explanations just bore the bejesus out of the audience.

So, everything is going backwards in this film. We’re going to learn about the Grandfather Paradox (don’t ask) and reversing time and hear lines of dialogue like, “Each generation looks after its own survival,” and “You have a future in the past.” There will be discussions about the meaning that will rival the interpretations of the meaning(s) of the ending of “12 Monkeys” (1995), a Bruce Willis time travel opus.

John David Washington is dubbed “the protagonist” in this one. He gets no actual character name. This bit was just used in another Bruce Willis film (“Hard Kill”) where my podcast guest of last week, Sergio Rizzuto (aka, the bad guy) was simply referred to as “the Pardoner,” but at least in that film the explanation involved ripping off The Canterbury Tales. Here, it is just the way it is, without any explanation.

John David Washington (son of Denzel; star of “BlackKlansman”) partners with  Robert Pattinson (“Twilight”) as Neal, his partner, in this one. The female co-star is a blonde 6’ 2” actress named Elisabeth Debicki. Since Washington only stands 5’ 9” and the female lead is three inches taller and wears three inch heels most of the time, she appears freakishly tall in many scenes. I have a theory that she was cast in the part because she was one of the few actresses tall enough to be able to extend her leg from the back seat of a car and unlock the door lock with her toes without moving from the back seat. This could be wrong, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Debicki’s character “Kat” is married to international arms dealer and all-around bad guy Richard Branagh as Andrei Sator. She tries to kill him twice. As they say, no love lost here.  Kat loathes her abusive husband, but they have a son (Max) and she is being blackmailed into staying with Andrei via threats that she will lose her son if she doesn’t do exactly what he says. On a very basic level, “Tenet” is about the extremes of absolute power.

Debicki displays very little warmth in the exchanges with her small son, and his part is so small that he doesn’t even rate a line. There is also no chemistry or love story between the Amazonian Kat and Washington, so the obligatory “I must go back through time to rescue Kat” struck me as a not-very-convincing old trope. For that matter, so was the “small weapon that can inexplicably end the world somehow” a concept used before.

I had just reviewed a Bruce Willis shot-in-Cincinnati movie (“Hard Kill”) in which there is a mysterious weapon that could end the world as we know it; the weapon was about the size of a pack of cigarettes. I complained then that how it worked was never clear and commented on its size. This film features another small weapon and the need to gather all the digits of an algorithm to activate whatever it does, which is never quite clear, although it is explained to us over and over and over.

“Tenet” spends roughly two hours of its 150-minute run time explaining what is happening, why it is happening, and what might happen next.

So much for “Show, don’t tell.”

Despite those lengthy explanations, the movie is still incredibly difficult to follow. Scene after scene of Washington, Pattinson, Branagh, and Debicki trying to convey the plot becomes exhausting.

It’s “Tenet’s” biggest failing and, while its cinematography, sets, most of its actig and its non-stop action are impressive (especially the highway chase scenes that run backwards), it comes off as an overlong exhausting effort.

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