[Film review] Oppenheimer

Review by John P. Harvey.

When J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), one of the rare U.S. physicists familiar with the crazily counter-intuitive field of quantum mechanics — thanks to study under the legendary Werner Heisenberg (Matthias Schweighöfer) — began teaching physics at U.C. Berkeley in 1929, little could he have imagined the monster he would be working to create within 15 years.

General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) selected Oppenheimer in 1942 to establish and lead a project to use atomic energy to create a super-bomb.  In 1943 Oppenheimer chose a location, Los Alamos, for the project’s location, and he and Groves together recruited an extraordinary team to create and test the first atomic bomb.  

The physicists who entered into the picture in one way or another included practically all of the colossi of the new physics: Albert Einstein (Tom Conti, in a remarkable likeness), Leo Szilard (Máté Haumann), Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), Paul Dirac (Ryan Stubo), Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), a young Richard Feynman (Jack Quaid), Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), and, well into the project, Enrico Fermi (Danny Deferrari).  It was in effect their collective genius that Oppenheimer coordinated in a herculean effort to achieve the impossible.

By mid 1945, the project, the Manhattan Project, had succeeded in creating and testing the Bomb.  In 1947, the Atomic Energy Commission’s Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr) appointed Oppenheimer head of Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Studies.  But Oppenheimer’s opposition in 1949 to developing an even more powerful bomb, the hydrogen bomb, led to doubts about his loyalty to the United States.

In Oppenheimer, we follow the trials, the moral difficulties, and the personal life of Oppenheimer in his work and in his relationships in the period centring on the project.  Cillian Murphy became Oppenheimer the rash youth and Oppenheimer the well-controlled adult, and through marvellously emotional performances we come to understand something of the loves of Oppenheimer’s life, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) and the woman who would become his wife: Kitty Puening (Emily Blunt).

It would have been a major oversight to exclude the qualms of the professionals involved about the likely consequences of their work, and the screenplay makes no such mistake.  Many of the scientists involved in the hydrogen bomb’s creation were opposed to demonstrating its formidable power on a populated centre.  Oppenheimer tended to keep his opinions to himself but, after its use on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, famously declared to then President Truman (Gary Oldman): “Mister President, I have blood on my hands”.  (Truman, though, had deployed the Bomb with an eye to establishing U.S. dominance over a future enemy.)

In the years of developing the country’s nuclear capability, Oppenheimer inadvertently made personal enemies, and the film shows how these animosities eventually entered into the McCarthy-era Atomic Energy Commission hearing that, ironically, stripped Oppenheimer of his security clearance.

Some of the film‘s more personal scenes are naturally speculative, and even established facts have been altered here and there to create a narrative a little more comprehensible than the reality.  Even so, the film depicts a complex web of political events, replete with suspicions, accusations, and underhanded vengeance — as well as a love story, a war story, a scientific epic, a moral conundrum, and a courtroom drama, all invisibly crafted into a gripping whole through narrative sophistication and acting finesse and brought to pulsating life in both exquisite studio sets and gargantuan outdoor creations.

What Oppenheimer leaves you with isn’t easily summed up.  But it includes insights into the human dimensions even of a major technological war project and, arising from them, the potential for major international politics to fall under the influence of the weaknesses, the misapprehensions and fallibilities, the pettinesses, and the personal vulnerabilities — as well as the intellectual prowess and moral strengths — of individuals.  However you conceive of it, though, the movie’s entirety is well worth absorbing.

Screening at Dendy, Palace, Hoyts, and Limelight cinemas.

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