“I feel like I have blood on my hands.” That admission is uttered by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who was the “father of the atomic bomb.”
As director of the Los Alamos Laboratory from 1943-45, he was a key figure in the Manhattan Project. A think tank and research/development group that created and launched the first nuclear weapons, courtesy of 5,000 workers and $2.2B. Some see the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan as the arms that ended World War II and Japanese aggression, making Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, Netflix’s Peaky Blinders) an American hero. But to others, he instigated nuclear proliferation and a power struggle that exists to this day.
With a fervor for this man of dubious distinction, writer/director Christopher Nolan (Tenet, Dunkirk, The Dark Knight Trilogy) turns his immense, visionary talent towards an enigmatic scientist, whose quest had positives and negatives. It was all a blessing to President Truman (Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour). Horrific for the Japanese. A haunting curse on its mastermind that pushed him towards anti-war, anti-nuclear activism. A crusade that became a thorn to the U.S. government and even more so to Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr., Chaplin), founding commissioner of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and Oppenheimer’s champion.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and the late Martin J. Sherwin, was adapted by Nolan into a drama-heavy and character-laden script. A screenplay that corrals vital participants: General Leslie Groves Jr. (Matt Damon), the officer who drafted Oppenheimer into the project. The physicist’s lover Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), a psychiatrist and card-carrying Communist. And his feisty biologist/botanist wife Kitty (Emily Blunt). She stood up for her husband as he was crucified during a sham, postwar investigation: “You sit there day after day letting them pick us apart. Why won’t you fight!”
Nolan’s keen ability to direct films with the artistry of a gifted photographer is on display in just about every frame. The enhanced footage (cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, Dunkirk) is a combination of IMAX® 65mm and 65mm large-format film photography and includes IMAX® black and white analogue photography. It’s impressive. Everything on view is edited (Jennifer Lame, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever) gracefully and frenetically. Story. Backstory. Story. Backstory. Like a jigsaw puzzle assembled rhythmically and rained on by a steady stream of rousing music (Ludwig Gôransson) and jittery, thunderous sound effects. Enough to elevate the material into a heightened state of drama. A melodrama involving nuclear physicists, intellectuals, government officials, scandals, Commie baiting and political maleficence. It all crescendos as a crushed man and his supportive wife are led to the gallows by right-wingers, fair-weather friends and former colleagues.
The cast is a who’s who of frequently seen faces (Jason Clarke, Tony Goldwyn, Kenneth Branagh) and unfrequently seen faces (Bennie Safdie, Macon Blair, Emma Dumont). Why Pugh is doing nude scenes in a film that requires none is a mystery. Blunt makes Kitty the wife everyone wishes they had, minus the alcoholism. Murphy is stoic throughout. As enigmatic, assured and indomitable as he is vulnerable and passive. Awaiting a truth and justice that may not appear. Downey is the film’s MVP. Unrecognizable for the longest time. Especially in the black and white footage that seems culled from a 1950s Red Scare film where deceitful villains finger Communists and those they can falsely incriminate regardless.
Nolan’s Oppenheimer is being billed as a thriller. It is not. It is a bio/his/dra of the highest order. Meticulously crafted then developed over three hours. There’s the setup, the do-or-die build up to creating the world’s biggest blast and deadliest weapon. All that is well directed, acted and produced. But the film’s most explosive scenes come in the third act. When Oppenheimer’s achievements are negated as vipers descend. As he reassesses rights and wrongs. As fame turns into infamy for killing thousands of people and angering those who envied him.
This is a very heady, brainy spectacle. A thesis. A portrait of a genius, his triumphs and shame. The blood on his hands never let Oppenheimer forget what he did. And neither will this film.