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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

Oppenheimer | Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Tom Conti, Benny Safdie, Kenneth Branagh

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Jacqueline Monahan is an educator for the Clark County School District.
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Oppenheimer | Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Tom Conti, Benny Safdie, Kenneth Branagh

Screenshot 2023-07-20 at 8.22.02 PM

When a single name is sufficient to recognize the seismic impact of a person, their contribution to humankind is usually life-altering and beneficial. Usually. Einstein, Edison, Ford, are notable examples of this. And then there’s Oppenheimer.

J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) the American scientist (theoretical physicist) known for his role in the development of the atomic bomb lamented his role in being a “destroyer of worlds.” Think Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Cold War, human vaporization, radiation poisoning, mushroom cloud, and mass destruction.

The complex and conflicted Oppenheimer is shown to be a man of contradictions: married, with a longtime mistress; creating a weapon of mass destruction, but uneasy about its implications; brilliant to the point of arrogance, but unwilling to defend himself against detractors later in life. Ironically, the man who brought quantum mechanics, (the mathematical description of the motion and interaction of subatomic particles) to America spent the latter part of his life, post-war, dealing with the fallout from it.
Oppenheimer illuminates the conflict and moral dilemma within the man, along with his enigmatic charisma. Visions of light waves and particles dance in his head.
Non-linear and full of flashbacks, the film reveals a young grad student studying in England and Germany in the 20’s, a rising professor at Berkeley, the head of the Los Alamos Laboratory leading the Manhattan Project where research and construction of the atom bomb takes place at breakneck speed in an attempt to gain weapons superiority before the Nazis during World War II; and finally, a persecuted political target, accused of being a communist as well as a Soviet spy. The “father of the atomic bomb” spent the rest of his life haunted by regret and futile efforts to contain the destructive force he had released into the world.

The "thread” that runs through the entire three-hour film is a 1954 Atomic Energy Commission hearing where these accusations take place was an effort to silence Oppenheimer’s views on nuclear weapons (let’s sit down with the Russians and talk about arms control) which clashed with military and political sensibilities of the time (let’s make bigger and better bombs and show those bastards who’s boss!) Oppenheimer was never a Communist, but close associates were. From there, flashbacks are woven throughout film depicting key events in the scientist’s life.

On the home front, Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, (Emily Blunt) is a former biologist and reluctant mom opting for martinis over maternal pursuits. Relentlessly supportive of her sometimes-philandering husband, Blunt radiates her own light waves in the role. Oppenheimer has a long-running and complicated affair with psychiatrist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh).

Female portrayals are scarce but intense. Jean and Kitty are both ferocious, providing whatever estrogen is to be found in the film. One embodies sex, (nude scene alert) and the other offers a scathing soundtrack to Oppenheimer’s life. In a small but revealing scene, a female staffer at Los Alamos complains of being asked to type. Oppenheimer instantly assigns her to plutonium research. In all other ways, the film is the essence of the phrase, “it’s a man’s world.”

Full of massive exposition and little action, the film may not be everyone’s cup of tea . If you’re expecting the hyperactive video game that was Nolan’s Dunkirk, you might be bored. If you revel in intellectual and scientific inquiry, security clearances, and physics theories; if you appreciate a glimpse into someone’s head to see what they see from the viewpoint of their brilliantly ordered brain, a brain which is still subject to chaos of a kind, then you will be privy to a fission-like exhilaration. The reaction depends literally on the organic composition of the viewer.

Speaking of reaction, the Trinity (first nuclear) test is sobering, both seen and heard (and in that order). After a blinding flash, the jump-inducing bomb begins as a hellish column of fire raging toward the sky, unleashing a terror that at once seems fleeting but ultimately, omnipresent.

Director/co-writer Christopher Nolan (Tenet, The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar) shot scenes in color and black and white, to delineate subjective and objective points of view. The color is all Oppenheimer. The black and white is newsreel-like, and the words spoken in the hearing are taken from actual transcripts. Nolan shares a writing credit with source material authors Kai Bird and the late Martin J. Sherwin from their 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. He wrote a first-person script, from Oppenheimer’s point of view and purposely did NOT use the title of the book, opting for the more straightforward Oppenheimer. Shot on film (no digital, no CGI) Nolan released the film in several formats including IMAX.

Cillian Murphy brings a quiet intensity to the eponymous role, using his cold blue, yet sometimes sympathetic eyes to good effect. Coupled with a habitual half-smile, the actor conveys both the quiet confidence as well as the arrogance of “Oppie” as his associates called him. His angular face lends itself to the conveyance of Oppenheimer’s ambiguous morality, arrogance, regret, guilt, justification and reflection.

The impressive cast includes Robert Downey Jr. as AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) founding member Lewis Strauss, Matt Damon as Lieutenant General Leslie Groves Jr, Director of the Manhattan Project, Benny Safdie as theoretical physicist Edward Teller, Michael Angarano as physicist Robert Serber, Josh Hartnett as nuclear scientist Ernest Lawrence, Tom Conti as Albert Einstein, Kenneth Branagh as Nobel prize winning physicist Niels Bohr, Casey Affleck as Army Intelligence Officer Boris Pash, and Jack Quaid as theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. The cast also includes Rami Malek, Alden Ehrenreich, and Matthew Modine. Expect Oscar nods for Murphy, Downey Jr., and Blunt.

Oppenheimer realized that U.S. superiority would be short-lived, provoking other countries to seek out their own nuclear weapons. He cautions, “They will fear it until they understand it, and they won’t understand it until they’ve used it.”

The world can only hope no one takes that as a dare.


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