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Oppenheimer: The man behind the atomic age

An important scene based on an insignificant meeting between Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) is almost missed until it appears that it is central to the narrative…reviewed by Arnab Banerjee

The life of American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the most respected leader of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb during World War II, has been the subject of a number of biographies, but history hasn’t been kind to him. His story still needs to be chronicled.

The epic biographical thriller ‘Oppenheimer’, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, gives us a fatalistic view of nuclear weapons, and the trauma that they entail. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 biography ‘American Prometheus’ by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, the film is about the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who pioneered the study of the first nuclear weapons as part of the Manhattan Project, thereby ushering in the Atomic Age.

During World War II, Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves Jr. appoints Oppenheimer, along with a team of scientists, to work on the top-secret Manhattan Project. The mission gets completed on July 16, 1945, as they witness the world’s first nuclear explosion, and it forever changes the course of history.

The film begins with a reference from Greek mythology to Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to men. For his action, the gods condemned him to being chained to a rock and tortured lifelong.

Thereafter, it shifts focus back and forth giving viewers a peek into the multifarious elements, namely, politics, the effects and limitless possibilities of science, the annihilation that war could bring, and Oppenheimer’s unbridled passion. The narrative investigates the character of power, and how, if not balanced out, it could lead to shadowy Catch-22s without so much as an explanation for any conclusion in sight.

Interestingly, the three-hour-long film is not about the bomb as much as it is about the U.S. government’s decision and the subsequent bombings in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and gives us a glimpse into all the paperwork that justified the morality that was ever questioned.

In the film, the physicist (Cillian Murphy) after starting his initial research as a young boy takes to quantum physics, and goes on to lead the Manhattan Project for which he was denounced and even scorned by the government. But being who he was, he neither compromised on his values and principles, nor did he stop dreaming.

Considering the biography ‘American Prometheus’ took 25 years to be completed and is a 600-page tome, encapsulating all of it in three hours is rather unfair. But then, Nolan strives to tell us how condemnable the development of nuclear weapons and their existence can be. It is also a story deeply germane to what the invention eventually does to change the history of the world. Oppenheimer spent his remaining years opposing the militarisation of the very weapons he invented, and destroyed himself in the bargain.

Filmed in a combination of IMAX 65mm and 65mm large-format film, including sections in IMAX black-and-white film photography, the film has utilised extensive practical effects and minimal computer-generated imagery.

Not made in a linear narrative, the protagonist’s life is shown in three main acts that are interwoven together. There are scenes from his college life, and later, two separate hearings, and of course, the process of creating the atomic bomb itself.

An important scene based on an insignificant meeting between Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) is almost missed until it appears that it is central to the narrative.

In a track shown there are different aspects of his life filmed. In one, there is a lot of criticism that Oppenheimer faces. Viewed from the perspective of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), a senior member of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the encounter sparks intrigue, leading him to obsess over its content.

An agitated Strauss holds a serious grievance against Oppenheimer for seemingly badmouthing him to Einstein in a conversation he views from afar at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and publicly dismisses his bete noir’s concerns regarding the export of isotopes.

By exploiting these allegations at a hearing intended to remove Oppenheimer from any position of political influence, he makes sure Oppenheimer’s security clearance is revoked. Alongside, Oppenheimer’s perceived communist ties and affair with fellow physicist Jean Tatlock (played by Florence Pugh) lead to his public fall from grace.

Strauss’ personal grievances against Oppenheimer get exposed, but it also leads to the physicist’s downfall. This section named ‘Fusion’ is in black and white, and is followed by another ‘Fission’.

Switching back and forth between black and white and colour, Nolan tries to depict the difference between the objective (black and white) and subjective (colour) points of view. As the two distinct storylines both  Fusion and Fission offer different perspectives. But if one is not clued into these strategic divisions, it could leave one confused.

Nolan also doesn’t adhere to dates and details of traditional biopic storytelling; instead, he dives headlong into the advent and fallout of the nuclear arms race.

The entire mood is sombre and often leads to bleak moments that spell morose historical facts. But what is noteworthy is that it is an absolute delight to watch, more also as an adaptation that is not — as it seems –fictionalised even one bit, so faithful to the original biography it appears to be. Not having read the book could be both advantageous and act as a detriment to one’s complete understanding of the film.  

Music by Ludwig Goransson remains understated; Cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is one of the film’s biggest assets.  

The ensemble cast is exemplary. Cillian Murphy stars as the titular character, with Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer’s wife, Katherine ‘Kitty’ Oppenheimer, Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves, Oppenheimer’s military handler, and Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, to name a few, are all a delight to watch. The supporting cast also includes Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, and Kenneth Branagh.

Duration: 180 minutes
Director & Screenplay: Christopher Nolan Cast: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr, Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek and Kenneth Branagh (Rating: ****)

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