Robert Oppenheimer’s life and career can be divided into three stages: his years as a superstar teacher of quantum physics at Berkeley, his overseeing of The Manhattan Project, and the building of the first atomic bomb (uranium/fission) at Los Alamos, New Mexico between the years of 1941 and 1945, and, finally, his slow decline as he attempted to be a mediator in the nuclear race between the USA and the USSR. The US government and some of his colleagues did not take too kindly to this, and he became a pariah for many in the early years of the Cold War. Eventually, he lost his government security clearance.
Director Christoper Nolan tries to capture all of this in one long (180 minutes and counting) movie, and the result is a bit of a bore. Back in 1982, Sam Waterston starred as Oppenheimer in a Limited TV series, and, in many ways, it was more satisfying. The dozens of Nobel Prize-winning and Nobel Prize-nominated scientists had more time to sink in. Here they come and go in the blink of an eye, although one or two of them have an effective scene – Benny Safdie as Edward Teller and Josh Harnett as Ernest Lawrence register. At the same time, Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves, and Gary Oldman in a brilliant turn as Harry Truman also stays with you. The rest of the cast, however, rush by so quickly that it’s like seeing them getting their photograph taken at the DMV.
Why should you see it? Well, there is no denying Cillian Murphy’s unforgettable performance. Amid all this history and chaos, he gives one of the most intimate and internalized performances on film. Yet he radiates intelligence and empathy topped off with just a soupçon of arrogance. He gets you inside the head of Oppenheimer, the man.
The other reason is a stunning recreation of the Trinity test at Los Alamos. Here, Nolan pulls out all the stops, and we watch, spellbound, as the camera’s movement, the choreography of the cast, the editing, and the music all come together to give you something approaching the essence of cinema. It’s a spine-chilling few minutes. And we understand, yet again, why Oppenheimer, as he witnesses the astonishing beauty and horror of what he has created, says: I become death, the destroyer of worlds.
Unfortunately, the movie’s last third is both a chore and a bit of a bore as one committee after another eviscerates a great man. We are also hugely disappointed in Nolan’s treatment of two of today’s most remarkable actresses, Emily Blunt (wasted as Oppenheimer’s wife) and Florence Pugh (destroyed as Oppenheimer’s mistress), whose characters are mistreated by Nolan (never a director to empathize with his female leads) that the result borders on misogyny.