‘I’ ON CULTURE
Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a triumph; the best movie I have seen all year. Actually, the best movie I’ve seen in quite a few years. He wrote it, directed it, and turned a three-hour film that mostly consists of men in suits talking into an exciting, fascinating biopic.
J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) is called “the father of the atomic bomb,” a fitting designation for the man who led the scientists on the Manhattan Project, which created the bomb during World War II. But this movie does not focus simply on that, but the complex social history of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Nolan’s genius is that he moves back and forth so well. A congressional hearing for Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), the first head of the Atomic Energy Commission, for an appointment as Secretary of Commerce frames the whole movie, since his dealings with Oppenheimer and Oppenheimer’s loyalty are called into question.
At the start, we see young Oppy (as he was called) in Europe, learning about quantum mechanics from the top brains of the day, some of whom will work with him and some against the U.S. during World War II. Teaching at Berkeley, he works with Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), a specialist in dealing with atomics. He becomes part of the left-wing culture there, mostly because he is Jewish and only the communists seem willing to fight the fascists in Spain. Although he is never a communist, his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), lover Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) and brother Frank (Dylan Arnold) are. As a result, he is under suspicion.
But Colonel, later General, Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) chooses him to head the project. The scenes leading up to the creation and testing of the bomb (the famed Trinity Test) are superb. And once the bombs are dropped, Oppy became a national hero.
That is, until the McCarthy era. He was brought before a board and declared a security risk, his clearances taken. The 1950s section is all in black and white, a fascinating contrast. Oppenheimer, whose personal life was a mess, not only had the ability to arouse great loyalty, but could offend pretty well.
One of the great things about the film is that it is not one-sided. Too often, the hero is perfect or one side or another is great and the other all evil. In this film, the McCarthyites are shown (rightly) to be short-sighted and nasty, but it does show that, yes, there were communists working to steal information. And, while we might judge one way now, it might have seemed different close to the time when Russia had moved into Eastern Europe and China supported North Korea.
Nolan gets brilliant performances from all his actors. Murphy, with piercing blue eyes, is exceptional as the complex Oppenheimer. But we expect great acting from stars. The key in the film is that even the supporting cast is brilliant. Downey is incredible; this might be his best, most subtle acting ever. Damon is very strong as Groves, projecting a superb calm. Blunt manages to make Kitty, often drunk and bitter, a powerful presence. Pugh, although naked more often than not, brings an emotional power to her part. Hartnett does his best acting in years as Lawrence, and there are dozens of other actors in small parts that are excellent. Tom Conti stands out in a few short scenes as Einstein. David Krumholtz stands out as Isidore Rabi, a very moral scientist.
Nolan is one of our great directors. Here he takes a film based on a lot of ideas and turn it into an explosive “who done it” as characters maneuver. The world these people lived in was changing rapidly, and some took advantage and others became victims. There are sections of the film that do get slow unless you’re a history buff or political junkie. But there is so much tension, so much contrast in this film, you will wind up thinking about different elements long after you have left the theater.
This is one movie you must see. It is not for kids (it is rated R for good reason), but it also serves as an intelligence test. Most of you do not follow history as much as I (I was a social studies teacher for more than 20 years) or are experts in nuclear science. But Nolan makes it easy to follow. See it.