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Oppenheimer – A Review

Oppenheimer – A Review

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Oppenheimer Movie

This article discusses the movie “Oppenheimer” which is an epic screen adaptation of Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s non-fiction book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” 

As the screenwriter and director, Christopher Nolan adapted Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s non-fiction book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” into a humongous epic that revolves around the adult life of the “father of the atomic bomb.” Cillian Murphy, who had previously collaborated with Nolan on The Dark Knight trilogy, Dunkirk, and Inception, stars as Oppenheimer, the Jewish-American theoretical physicist who successfully drove the U.S. government’s secret Manhattan Project, which developed the first nuclear weapons.

Many would consider this as Nolan’s most complicated and ambitious project in terms of subject and scale. It has a different fabric and tempo vis-à-vis Nolan’s previous body of work and Nolan had more than a handful to deal with – intricate scientific concepts, political and military details, scathing moral questions, and the protagonist’s life. It rolled out a breathtaking portrayal of a scientist who cannot comprehend his own greatness and cannot persuade others to believe his own story. Nolan has told the story in three interlinked aligned tracks. The first narrates Oppenheimer’s evolution from a restrained student (mostly at Gottingen University) to an outstanding scientist and director of the critical Manhattan Project. The second set in the future, has him clarify his association with the Communist Party. The third (in striking 65MM monochrome), captures Lewis Strauss’s Senate confirmation hearing in 1959 to become US President Eisenhower’s Secretary of Commerce.

The information-rich plot covers Oppenheimer’s initial years as a student, his tryst with the ideologies of Communism, his leadership of the Manhattan Project, the debates about the proper use of destructive technology, and Oppenheimer’s distressed relationship with his wife Kitty and love interest, Jean Tatlock.

Oppenheimer is a dense and intertwined period saga, playing out in a mesh of varied timelines. Nolan tells Oppenheimer’s story is told in his unmistakable non-linear style, shuttling back and forth to different periods. The fragmented approach results in brilliant individual scenes that at times don’t form the picture in its completeness.

The lion’s share of the film is narrated from Oppenheimer’s point of view, in vivid colour, shot with close proximity. The Black and white frames are made to feel a tad claustrophobic to show Strauss’s perspective during the Senate Committee.

Music director Ludwig Göransson’s score is pitch-perfect and plays a perfect foil to the intense storyline (in fact I didn’t miss Hans Zimmer). And there’s a recurring musical kaleidoscope, with a series of thunderous stamping feet, portraying Oppenheimer’s zenith of glory. But in the hindsight, it also alludes to a petrifying, far-reaching, and catastrophic impact of Oppenheimer’s project.

Now let’s delve a little into the cast ….

Cillian Murphy, a loyal collaborator of Nolan (but largely unnoticed until his career-defining turn as Thomas Shelby in ‘Peaky Blinders’) portrays the various shades of Oppenheimer with aplomb. The Irishman with his emaciated face and haunting ‘ocean blue eyes’, probes us with an unmatched angst, vulnerability, helplessness, and intensity. He is spellbinding in the characterization of the scientist who became America and the Allied world’s celebrated poster boy until the fame finally ceases to revolve around him. Cillian has an uncanny resemblance with Oppenheimer, and he portrays the physicist’s internal turbulence and external grit with paramount ease. It is quite difficult (and perhaps impossible) to fathom him in his entirety, and that’s where Nolan was considerably successful in his effort. 

A scene from'Oppenheimer' movie
A scene from’Oppenheimer’ movie

As Lt. General Leslie Groves, the man entrusted with guiding the Manhattan Project, Matt Damon compliments perfectly with Murphy’s opinionated Oppenheimer. Their verbal frames were a joy to watch when an upright army general was pitted against a scholarly physicist. Damon managed to bring forth a subtle comedic flavour to his performance, and we see how his earlier premonition about Oppenheimer and his work waned and he developed a respect for his compatriot.

Emily Blunt, as J Robert’s wife Kitty Oppenheimer, was not provided with a sizable screentime. spends the first couple of hours drinking liquor from a flask, stood behind her husband’s larger pursuits, and single-handedly, albeit grudgingly rose her two children. However, we get a few blazing moments from Blunt, wherein the intense and visceral interrogation scene he matched the aggression of Roger Robb (well portrayed by Jason Clarke) with iron-fisted grit and fire, not to forget her abhorrent glare that showed her hatred towards a disloyal colleague of her husband. One of the recurring criticisms that Nolan has always received is his depiction of his female characters merely as motivation for the ‘all-powerful’ male protagonists. Critics have highlighted his somewhat shallow portrayal of women, who are almost always attractive but tragic (for instance in The Prestige, Inception, and Memento). But Emily Blunt’s Kitty Oppenheimer is much alive in that respect, never reserved about venting her pent-up frustrations with motherhood or politics.

Florence Pugh plays the other primary female character in the film, Jean Tatlock, a psychiatrist and Communist Party member, with whom Oppenheimer had a wild romance. Pugh did her best but was somewhat underwhelmed in her portrayal.

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Robert Downey Jr. is an absolute revelation in a subtle but central character part. He comes across as the film’s key disruptor and antagonist as the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) head Lewis Strauss, who made it his sole mission to tear down Oppenheimer’s credibility and public image in the eyes of the US Government.

Perhaps this is Nolan’s ‘Achilles Heel’ in an otherwise brilliantly crafted movie. The Strauss-Oppenheimer bitter rivalry, accentuated by jealousy and humiliation, somewhat derails the movie into a revenge saga. From being an intriguing and awe-inspiring story about a startling scientific genius of the modern era, the storyline partially digresses into a somewhat predictable (something that could have been trimmed) court/political drama.

Nolan’s ensemble cast had quite a few other Hollywood A-Listers as well: Kenneth Branagh as the erudite Danish Physicist Neils Bohr, Gary Oldman as the US President Harry Truman, and Josh Hartnett as the American Nuclear Physicist Ernest Lawrence. I was particularly impressed with Rami Malek, who in his brief presence was utterly conspicuous and riveting. A shout-out should also go to Benny Safdie as temperamental Hungarian-American scientist Edward Teller and David Krumholtz as US nuclear physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi.

from the movie 'Oppenheimer'
From the movie ‘Oppenheimer’

I have grown up reading Narayan Sanyal’s “Biswasghatok” (The Traitor), and though this biopic is Nolan’s narrative visualisation of “Oppie” and his life and not the ‘Manhattan Project’ per se, I missed the reasonable presence of so many history defining characters …. Fermi, Bohr, Fuchs, Szilard, et al. However, the two characters I so longed to see and yearned for more were Warner Heisenberg (essayed by the noted German actor Matthias Schweighofer) and Richard Feynman (played by Meg Ryan’s son Jack Quaid).

It is to be noted that the appalling destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is conveyed in words, and not visually shown in the movie. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” Oppenheimer’s quotation from the Bhagwad Gita, bares it all, as we hear a visibly distraught Oppenheimer’s heavy breathing and his dilemma and agony in his creation and use of the ‘Frankenstein like” monster.

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  • The movie is complecated & multidimensional, and the reality is even more complex!
    ” intricate scientific concepts, political and military details, scathing moral questions, and the protagonist’s life”.
    “story is told in his unmistakable non-linear style, shuttling back and forth to different periods”!

    Kudos to the reviewer, only a few can even attempt to reflect!
    A few golden lines “breathtaking portrayal of a scientist who cannot comprehend his own greatness and cannot persuade others to believe his own story”

    Heisenberg and Richard Feynman could have more play in the story.
    Mention of “Biswasghatok” makes the reviewer Bengali!

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