Hits & Misses Movie Review: August 2023

Oppenheimer: TWO HITS: Don’t Miss it!

Basing his ambitious and compelling film about the man known as the “father of the atomic bomb,” writer/director Christopher Nolan sources much of his material from the carefully researched 2005 biography “American Prometheus.” Known for his innovative film techniques, Nolan intersperses the use of vivid color, which is needed for experimental testing results, and carefully constructed black-and-white scenes used as reminders of a later era in Robert Oppenheimer’s life when he was surrounded by political controversy.

Even within a myriad of personal and global events, Nolan can create a chronology in this film that covers four decades. We first meet Oppie (Cillian Murphy) as a student in Cambridge, where he has floundered as a student until he is introduced to quantum physics, a field that ignites his prodigious intellect. He excels in the classroom but dislikes lab work because it is less theoretical. When he hears that the atom has been split in half, he ponders the possibilities that could be unleashed.

Perhaps unexpectedly, we discover that this theoretical physicist admires artists in several fields. He reads T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” listens to the music of Stravinsky, and contemplates the art of Picasso. He sees in their works the melding of space and time that is present in his own pursuits. Oppenheimer’s love for the classroom and for theory land him two positions in teaching at Berkeley and Cal Tech.

At Berkeley, he makes two memorable connections, one with Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), who invented the cyclotron, and another with Colonel Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), who is the military head of the fledgling Manhattan Project. Also impacting Oppenheimer’s life is Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the spread of Fascism throughout Europe as well as the immigration of several Jewish scientists. It becomes known that the Germans are already working on an atom bomb, and Colonel Groves suggests that Oppenheimer should head up this kind of scientific research. He gains the dubious support of the Atomic Energy Commission’s chairman Lewis Strauss (a barely recognizable Robert Downey Jr.), who will later become a nemesis in Oppie’s life.

Oppenheimer has always loved New Mexico’s open spaces, where he has vacationed on his brother’s ranch. With his love for research and his love of the desert, Oppie suggests that the government build a self-contained community in Los Alamos. Scientists and staff employees will live and work in this remote region with their families for as long as it takes to build a weapon that could bring World War II to a halt.

By now Oppenheimer has had an affair with a political firebrand, who is emotionally unstable, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). He marries another difficult but brilliant woman, Kitty Harrison (Emily Blunt). She brings their infant son with them to Los Alamos, where another child, a daughter, is born. The intense work of the scientists and their assistants reaches its culmination in 1945 when the “Trinity bomb” is exploded in the desert with the force and intensity that the researchers had hoped for. It is the prototype for the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing an almost immediate Japanese surrender.

But the story does not end smoothly for Oppenheimer. He is racked personally with guilt and sadness over the destruction he has made possible. In the years following the war, he suffers not only from his own personal despair but he is made the target of the newly forming anti-Communist movement. His brother had been a member of the Communist party, and Oppenheimer had explored the tenets of the party during the 1930s, but he never joined. Nevertheless, he suffers some dire consequences.

The movie “Oppenheimer” lasts a full three hours, yet the time needed for the arc of the story is intense, and the issues covered are diverse.

Christopher Nolan provides a well-written script, fine actors, and amazing camera work. A relative unknown in film, Cillian Murphy looks very much like the photos of Oppenheimer with a slim, tall stature and piercing blue eyes. He also ages carefully over the four decades that culminate in the telling of what many people feel was the most significant development in the twentieth century.



Categories: Arts

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