Was he the devil or a saviour?
If J. Robert Oppenheimer didn’t invent the ultimate killing machine, would someone else from a rival superpower have done so?
These are just some of the questions addressed in the superbly rendered film Oppenheimer.
Master filmmaker Christopher Nolan (Inception) has taken no short cuts and come up with a tension filled, intriguing look at how the world was changed irrevocably.
The first atomic bomb, named Little Boy, was dropped on Hiroshima on 6th August, 1945. The second, known as Fat Man, fell on Nagasaki three days later.
Total casualties exceeded 200,000.
But as much as the film deals with the consequences of those actions, Oppenheimer spends a great deal of time in the lead up to the bombs being released.
It paints a picture of a seriously gifted mind (there are frequent parallels drawn to Albert Einstein), who had shortcomings.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, as portrayed by Cillian Murphy, was a much-feted theoretical physicist.
Born into a non-observant Jewish family, he was womaniser, chain smoker and a man with Communist leanings, at least for a while.
Oppenheimer, the movie, moves between time frames.
It establishes how his studies and teaching took him around the world, before he settled back in the United States.
His intellectual rigour was highly sought and he landed a job at a prestigious college run by Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr). Strauss would become chairman of the US Atomic Agency Commission.
Oppenheimer was subsequently prevailed upon to help the war effort by military officer Leslie Groves (Matt Damon).
Groves had overseen construction of the Pentagon. He was charged with directing the top-secret Manhattan Project, involving the development of the atomic bomb. The intent was to end WWII sooner rather than later.
So, Groves enlisted Oppenheimer and built a small town for him in a remote part of New Mexico. That enabled the latter and his team to carry out their work in isolation.
After developing the nuclear weapon, J. Robert Oppenheimer became increasingly concerned about its use and misuse.
This was the time of Harry S. Truman, when the House Un-American Activities Committee was established to expose Americans with Communist ties.
Oppenheimer was effectively put on trial. I say effectively because the body that investigated him wasn’t a legally constituted court.
At the same time, the pressure was turned up on the US Atomic Agency Commission chair.
Oppenheimer is an impressive film on every level.
Let’s face it, making physics – especially theoretical physics – interesting (stimulating even) to anyone other than science nerds is no mean feat.
But Nolan has managed to do just that.
He has left nothing to chance and his attention to detail is commendable.
There are so many threads and characters here. Three hours is a long time, but Nolan doesn’t waste a frame. Each scene is another piece of a highly political and, at times, deeply personal puzzle.
The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and the late Martin J. Sherwin.
Oppenheimer is infused with a series of scintillating performances, earnestly led by Cillian Murphy. His representation of the genius is remarkable and insightful.
Matt Damon is authoritative as his immediate superior, clearly just a cog in a bigger wheel that will see the world pivot.
Equally imposing is Robert Downey Jr, cast as a concerned, but arrogant “player”.
Emily Blunt plays Oppenheimer’s troubled, but pragmatic wife Kitty with distinction, lurching from addiction to devastation.
So, too, Florence Pugh, who excels as Oppenheimer’s lover Jean Tatlock – savvy in a bookish sense, but naïve and, ultimately, savaged.
As with many other cast members, there are notable layers to the main players’ respective performances, from which the film benefits enormously.
Josh Hartnett is cast as a pioneering American nuclear scientist and Casey Affleck as chief of Army counter-intelligence at the Presidio in San Francisco.
Kenneth Branagh is a Nobel Prize winning physicist, while Rami Malek is an associate experimental physicist.
Alternating imagery in colour and black and white, Hoyte van Hoytema’s evocative cinematography draws in the audience to the cat and mouse game at play.
Ludwig Göransson’s arresting score adds another stratum to the anxiousness evident throughout.
A phenomenal cinematic achievement, Oppenheimer is undoubtedly the film of the year. Surely Oscars await.
Rated MA, it scores a 10 out of 10.