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Why Oppenheimer should win the best picture Oscar

<span>Physical presence … Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer</span><span>Photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon/AP</span>
Physical presence … Cillian Murphy in OppenheimerPhotograph: Melinda Sue Gordon/AP

‘OK, so here’s how we win the Oscar for a biopic about a theoretical physicist. [Sounds of manic scribbling on a blackboard. A large circle is drawn and tapped with a piece of chalk.] In here, we put as many thespian-coded Hollywood stars as we can. Dozens, hundreds. We might not give them much to do, heck Josh Hartnett will just be patting people on the shoulder, but everything they do do will be poignant. Meanwhile [a shuffle of feet, another, bigger circle drawn] in here we have all the aspects of contemporary cinema production that work exceptionally well on those big screens you have to pay £10 extra to get into. We take all these aspects, sight, sound, scale – spectacle! – and we use them lavishly to recreate the first successful test of a nuclear weapon and hint at its terrifying consequences. [A big swoosh of white chalk under the word “Trinity”. A pause for effect.] I can also confirm today that we will definitely, at some point, have Albert Einstein standing by a pond [a thunder of feet pounding wooden benches]. And the rest? The rest we pad out with extended scenes of cross examination from a hodgepodge of tribunals. People? Let’s get to it.”

This may not be a faithful account of the process by which Christopher Nolan’s new movie came into existence. But the feeling of Oppenheimer being a precision-tooled construction that blends the fascinations of Hollywood’s last commercially successful auteur with the interests of the Academy remains. Serious themes, serious people, an unflinching dedication to both the craft and the medium of cinema, Oppenheimer ticks the boxes. Bookmakers are duly offering odds as short as 1/25 on for it to take home best picture.

The case for why Oppenheimer will win the best picture Oscar is easy to make, the argument for why it should is more complicated. There are obviously some straightforward points in its favour: Cillian Murphy’s performance being one. Never quite simply the harrowed Cassandra of the marketing materials, Murphy’s Oppenheimer is an impish man with a sharp sense of humour and a physical presence despite his wiry frame. A combination of these strengths and weaknesses help him to survive his trials.

The Trinity set piece is another clear plus. It’s a moment of cinematic grandeur that serves both a dramatic and historic function, attempting a snapshot of a civilisation about to take an irrevocable turn. With the countdown running, the camera pieces together the processes and makes us understand the stakes. We watch as Oppenheimer and Matt Damon’s General Leslie Groves, at the last ditch, collectively grasp the “non-zero” risk of what they are doing. Meanwhile, around them, handsome young Americans take zero precautions as they prepare to expose themselves to radioactive material. It’s as unsettling as it is exhilarating.

Obviously, there’s a long story about how Nolan meticulously constructed the Trinity test, eschewing CGI for a real (small, non-nuclear) bomb and magnifying the intensity of its explosion through the use of forced perspective, a cinematic trick as old as Charlie Chaplin. It seems likely this combination of old-school techniques delivered on a modern day scale will further endear Oppenheimer to Academy voters, but it is twinned with a more expressionistic exploration of the consequences of the bomb some half an hour later.

Oppenheimer the film has attracted critical scrutiny due to Nolan’s decision not to show the consequences of the Manhattan Project, of the atom bomb being dropped first on Hiroshima then Nagasaki. Nolan argues he made this choice because of the subjective nature of the story. So his alternative is to offer a moment inside Oppenheimer’s head. It comes as a tub-thumping address following the destruction of Hiroshima (“I bet the Japanese didn’t like it!”) whites out into something approximating a panic attack. The hubbub of the lecture room diminishes, replaced by a single scream. We see the audience, a crowd that was delirious with joy, transform into a writhing, screaming horde, with one woman’s skin apparently flayed from her face. As Oppenheimer watches, we watch him, his face bleached by white light, his surroundings bleeding in and out of focus. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is a roar that makes you feel like you might (might want to?) black out.

This scene, for me, is the strongest part of the movie and central to any persuasive case for Oppenheimer winning the big one at the Dolby theatre. It is, after all, doing many of the same things that Jonathan Glazer achieves in The Zone of Interest, using light and sound detached from their context to unsettle the viewer, to instil horror. Glazer sustains this for two hours, Nolan reduces it to a minute, but both are effective in getting under your skin. These are techniques that also feel innovative and contemporary, something you’d think the Academy might like to encourage.

I’m not going to pretend there isn’t a fair amount in this film I just couldn’t get on with. Beneath the performances, pockets of innovation and bucket-loads of craft is a fairly simple film. Most of the extensive cast are reduced to archetypes and poor Emily Blunt is shrunk to something even smaller. The structure is typically convoluted and can quite easily leave you (OK, me) confused, while the actual moral quandary at the heart of the film is only really poked at, in the way you might engage with a mouse left on the kitchen floor by a cat. It’s also addicted to dramatic irony. Addicted, I tell you. Whatever did happen to that Kennedy boy who blocked the confirmation of Lewis Strauss? I’m going to go home and Google him!

But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Oppenheimer (unlike Tenet). I even felt it was worth the £17 I paid to watch it in a sensory overload screen at Shepherd’s Bush Vue. A conservative technocrat he may be, but Nolan uses the workings of his imagination to make big movies for big audiences. With his latest work he also inadvertently occasioned an alliance that saved the movie-going habit in 2023. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Academy will not only choose to give Oppenheimer the Oscar forbest picture, but that they should.