- Movie Rating -

Oppenheimer (2023)

| July 21, 2023

The first time that I ever saw J. Robert Oppenheimer was in the famous black and white film in which he recounted the first test of the atomic bomb.  It is the moment we all remember – his whole face in the camera, recalling the reaction to the test by the scientists and military, called The Manhattan Project, “Some laughed, some cried, many were silent,” he said.  He remembered a quote from the Hindu Scripture The Bhagavat Gita, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”  It was the face that I remembered, his sallow face and haunted eyes bearing the weight of what he had helped to bring upon the world.

The pain in Oppenheimer’s eyes has never left me, and I feared that director Christopher Nolan might overstep that detail.  His biopic Oppenheimer is a huge film, an epic in every respect with a heavilly-populated cast of familiar faces, a truckload of smart editing choices and a storytelling narrative structure that may either frustrate or fascinate – it depends on you.  It might have been easy to lose the smaller human elements, but he lands every note just right and creates one of the year’s best films.

Nolan knows how to find the intricate human elements in the middle of a wide-spread epic and that’s crucial here.  He sees J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) as a complex and complicated man, a man of science who always seems ahead of the curve.  He thinks larger than everyone else, and being a scientist, we expect that.  But he’s also flawed in almost fatalistic ways, particularly in his associations with women.  He was a mathematical genius and theoretical physicist and an endearingly underplayed self-promoter whose mind was always running fast, whose libido got him into trouble and who was ultimately destroyed and discredited by the same government that trusted him with the most vital and dangerous project man had ever put in place.  The Manhattan Project might have felt like a snake eating its own tail: Go to a hastily-built small town in Los Alamos, New Mexico and lead the best scientific minds in the world to create a bomb that would end the war and save civilization, but potentially could obliterate it in seconds.

The narrative is a little striking.  Oppenheimer does not follow a straight line.  It jumps around in time, beginning late in his career as he is being crucified by the United States government for his alleged communist ties despite the fact that the atomic bomb stopped the war with Japan.  We see these images and they are coupled with events in Oppenheimer’s early life.  We see events that happen long after World War II has ended and they are coupled in our minds of images we saw earlier either before the atomic tests or during the construction phase.  And we see events wholly taking place in Oppenheimer’s head of bursts of energy, fire and conflagration.  These images, when seen in a sequential order (it helps to pay attention) form a fuse that is being lit that will eventually lead to the test itself.  The film is edited by Jennifer Lame (Black Panther, Tenet) in a way that, in lesser hands, might have been convoluted and confusing.  But she never forgets to add the cause as well as the effect.  What we see in the past pays off later, but often what we see in the present (the late 50s) pays off with a scene that takes place later in the film but are actually events that happened earlier (in the mid-30s).

The disaster present at Los Alamos, to my surprise, is not the center of the film, though it is the most significant.  The presentation itself is unique: there is a lot of build-up to the test, a lot of discussion of what is happening and what might happen – it is alarming that the military and scientists conducted this test without knowing what the result would be, leading to the now-famous moment in which the project scientists were taking bets that “The Gadget” would incinerate New Mexico, and the side-bet that it might ignite the atmosphere and destroy the world.  But when the moment comes, it is not what we expect.  More I will not say.  I’ll only say that the scene gives us the sense of being at the test site- it’s an aural and visual experience that allows us to really feel what has been created.  It’s horrifying.

But the detonation of the bomb is only one part of the story.  This is the story of a man who was asked to do the impossible – to create a bomb before Hitler’s Nazi scientists could finish their research and create a bomb that they could use to further threaten the world.  But he is surrounded by a gallery of forces both opposing and warning him.  Among them is General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) the project’s military supervisor who both seems to respect and despise Oppenheimer given the physicist’s left-leaning politics.  His wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) is a woman with a brilliant mind that is more or less his conscience.  And there’s Atomic Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr., in a terrific performance) who hated Oppenheimer for apparently not taking to heart the toll that this project was having with regards to the Jewish people (both men were Jewish) and led a bizarrely intricate plan to derail and discredit Oppenheimer as a communist during the McCarthy era. 

These scenes are achingly sad, as we see J. Robert Oppenheimer, who became a credit to his country for his work at Los Alamos and then was run through a kangaroo court to strip him of his security credentials.  This, coupled with his severe mental trauma over what he had created and the arms race that would follow, made Oppenheimer a broken and bitter man late in life, a prophet robbed of his honor who tried to warn the world of what would come in the aftermath of the atomic bomb and whose predictions all seemed to come true.,

This is a far more intelligent and complex film than I had expected.  It really does require your attention and, to my surprise, does merit a trip to the theater – which is odd since the movie is wall to wall with words.  This is an aural and visual experience as Nolan successfully tries to get inside Oppenheimer’s head and then populates the film with so many contradictory opinions and viewpoints from the supporting players that you wonder how The Manhattan Project ever got underway in the first place.  The last hour of the film has already been debated as we see J. Robert Oppenheimer, despite his achievement, under the scrutiny by his own government.  It brings to light questions of loyalty, patriotism, politicking, and the apparatus of an American system that plays fast and loose with its own rules and its own ideas of what qualifies as a worthwhile citizen.  Coming out of a war ended by the most destructive force that man has ever developed, the movie leaves you wondering what we have made of ourselves that was ever worth saving in the first place.  Are we really the arsenal of democracy?  Or have we simply allowed ourselves to become death, the destroyer of worlds?

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2023) View IMDB Filed in: Drama