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Oppenheimer (A Movie Review)


Starring Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, Benny Safdie, Dylan Arnold, Gustaf Skarsgård, David Krumholtz, Matthew Modine, David Dastmalchian, Tom Conti, Michael Angarano, Jack Quaid, Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby, Dane DeHaan, Danny Deferrari, Alden Ehrenreich, Jefferson Hall, Jason Clarke, James D'Arcy, Tony Goldwyn, Devon Bostick, Alex Wolff, Scott Grimes, Josh Zuckerman, Matthias Schweighöfer, Christopher Denham, David Rysdahl, Guy Burnet, Louise Lombard, Harrison Gilbertson, Emma Dumont, Trond Fausa Aurvåg, Olli Haaskivi, Gary Oldman, John Gowans, Kurt Koehler, Macon Blair, Harry Groener, Jack Cutmore-Scott, James Remar, Gregory Jbara, Tim DeKay and James Urbaniak.

Screenplay by Christopher Nolan.

Directed by Christopher Nolan.

Distributed by Universal Pictures. 180 minutes. Rated R.

J. Robert Oppenheimer was certainly one of the more complex men – with one of the more complex legacies – in modern history.

He was a scientist who believed in the sanctity of life, and yet his greatest discovery is forever linked to massive death. He was called both a war hawk and a communist, but in this film, he refers to himself as a New Deal Democrat. He created the most awesome weapon in American history (at the time), but he apparently sincerely hoped the specter of nuclear Armageddon would stop people from using it.

His invention of the atomic bomb certainly put an exclamation point on the end of World War II, and yet as Oppenheimer points out, it may not have even been necessary. Hitler was dead, Germany had fallen, and the Japanese were teetering. Chances are good they would have surrendered even without having two of their cities annihilated. (Oppenheimer actually tried to talk Harry S. Truman out of using the bomb on Japan, feeling that just the knowledge that it was there may be enough of a deterrent.) He spent much of his later life trying to protest the use of his greatest achievement.

He was a loving, doting husband and also a total womanizer. He was a good friend and at the same time he was rather self-involved. He became a scientific celebrity, but he was an intensely private man who rather hated the spotlight. He was a mostly non-political man who became entangled in several political morasses. He had passionately held beliefs, but he often was unwilling to fight the injustices going on around him, simply hoping against hope that the people on the other side would come to their senses. And he always overestimated the intrinsic good in people.

It perhaps makes a certain amount of sense that the film about Oppenheimer’s life would be helmed by Christopher Nolan, a similarly complex character. Nolan is a brilliant filmmaker (The Dark Knight, Inception, Memento), but not always all that good as a storyteller (Interstellar, Tenet, Batman Begins).

Well, with Oppenheimer, Nolan has one hell of a story to tell. It’s smart, thought-provoking, tragic, and intensely timely even decades after the action took place. And even though the film runs a little bit long (three hours!) and has occasional slow patches, it is quite probably Nolan’s best film.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize–winning 2005 biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, Oppenheimer takes a measured, scientist’s perspective to the life and times of a flawed but basically brilliant man. From his youth in university, through the Manhattan Project and his later time as an advocate against nuclear proliferation, Oppenheimer flips back and forth through the years and history, putting a microscope on a man who probably never totally wanted the scrutiny.

Framed around an attempted political takedown of the scientist in his later years, Oppenheimer is both a courtroom drama and a truly inspired celebration of science, both its good and bad aspects.

Along those lines, know going in that Oppenheimer is not going to dumb things down for mass consumption. It is often talky and takes on complicated scientific and philosophical concepts and respects the audience enough to assume that they will be able to keep up.

Oppenheimer is a thoughtful, intelligent and gorgeously shot snapshot of our recent history. Do not be surprised to see a lot of this film on Oscar night next year.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2023 All rights reserved. Posted: July 21, 2023.

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