Monday, 24 June 2024

‘Oppenheimer’ the gripping tale of a nuclear scientist


In his inimitable style, director Christopher Nolan favors complex storytelling of theoretical themes with eccentric narratives that are strangely audacious in a blockbuster manner with an oddly art-house sensibility.

His brain-bending heist film “Inception” took audiences deep into the inner space of the dreaming mind. The space odyssey “Interstellar” was a trippy journey into the outer limits and twisting whirlpool of the universe.

Nolan put his stamp of originality, what Joseph Bevan of the British Film Institute called “a new brand of intelligent escapism,” on a trilogy of “Batman” films starting with “Batman Begins” and ending with “The Dark Knight Rises.”

In the bold wartime epic “Dunkirk,” Nolan captured the harrowing experiences of soldiers trying to survive the deadly horror of World War II on the beaches of Normandy. Not so terrific was “Tenet,” a metaphysical sci-fi thriller about the present under attack from the future.

With his body of work well-known to many moviegoers, Nolan brings to the screen “Oppenheimer” a most ambitious and sweeping epic thriller that delves deep into the psyche of the singular American mind of a brilliant scientist.

A Time magazine cover story proclaimed J. Robert Oppenheimer “the father of the atomic bomb.” As much he may have wished later in life to escape that encomium, Oppenheimer would forever be remembered for his role in bringing an end to the war with Japan.

One may wonder what the theoretical physicist would think about “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” the more than 700 pages Pulitzer Prize-book by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin and the film’s source material. I didn’t have time to read it beforehand.

At a running time of three hours, “Oppenheimer” can only paint the broader picture but with enough details to be riveting. We glimpse Oppenheimer’s (Cillian Murphy) early years in the 1920s studying in Europe and showing promise of his brilliance.

While the focus is on Oppenheimer, who seems to be in almost every frame of this picture, heading up the top-secret Manhattan Project at the hastily-constructed outpost of Los Alamos, New Mexico, the story does not unfold in linear fashion.

There are numerous flashbacks and flashforwards to the life of the physicist, from professor at UC Berkeley before the war, and then post-war, his position as director of an institute at Princeton to losing his security clearance before a hearing of the Atomic Energy Commission.

A bundle of contradictions, Oppenheimer does not fit neatly into a hero role. While hardly orthodox in his religion, the scientist’s Jewish heritage certainly motivated his desire to develop the weapon that would topple the Nazi regime.

At the time, Germany was believed to be ahead of the allies in terms of developing a nuclear weapon. Oppenheimer was joined in the New Mexico desert by scientists of similar heritage to his own. Stopping Hitler was the logical imperative.

Oppenheimer was recruited by General Leslie Graves (Matt Damon), who understood the stakes but nevertheless wondered if pushing the button would destroy the world. When Oppenheimer says the chance is near zero, Graves replied that “zero would be nice.”

Facets of Oppenheimer’s life and political views proved to be problematic for many. Intellectually arrogant and aloof, Oppenheimer was described as someone who “couldn’t run a hamburger stand.”

What was troublesome but overlooked because of the necessity of developing a weapon to drop on Japan was Oppenheimer’s Communist sympathies in his early years, though he associated with a lot of party members including his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) and lover (Florence Pugh).

Being a notorious womanizer was underscored by his intense, torrid affair with psychiatrist Jean Tatlock (Pugh). The nude scenes of their tryst seem gratuitous but suggestive that maybe Oppenheimer strayed far and wide from his marriage.

After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the post-war era is just as spellbinding with Oppenheimer ending up in the crosshairs of his nemesis Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.), chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Weirdly enough as the progenitor of the nuclear bomb, Oppenheimer fell out of favor for his opposition to developing the hydrogen bomb, putting him in conflict with Dr. Edward Teller (Benny Safdie).

After the fact, Oppenheimer wanted to reign in his invention, not understanding the nuclear age had taken on a life of its own and the Soviet rush to nuclear armament led to the Cold War era of doomsday angst.

“Oppenheimer” may be viewed as a cautionary tale of the existential fear in the lives of people everywhere given what’s happening now on the world stage with a rogue nation that remains a nuclear power.

The scientists at the Manhattan Project may have been troubled as they sought the secrets of fission to make a fusion bomb, a fear that Oppenheimer dubbed “the terrible possibility.” After watching “Oppenheimer,” a little escapism may be necessary. “Barbie,” anyone?

“Oppenheimer” is an epic thriller well-worth the experience and best seen in IMAX if possible, though an intermission would have been nice.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

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