Friday, July 21, 2023



1926. A young J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) studies Physics at Cambridge and almost poisons his professor through an apple. After an academic detour at Göttingen, he returns to the United States to spearhead a Quantum Physics program in California. He marries biologist Katherine Puening (Emily Blunt) but it doesn’t take long for him to start an extramarital affair with US Communist Party member Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), whom he loses to suicide later on. He acknowledges the potential for nuclear fission to be weaponized as it was discovered in the late 1930’s and is eventually recruited by US Army General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to lead the country’s Manhattan Project, which would develop the atomic bomb that would eventually be dropped on two cities in Japan to end the second World War. As his former ally Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), a high-ranking member of the US Atomic Energy Commission, testifies against him to salvage his own political career, Oppenheimer reflects on the guilt he feels for honing a weapon that could devastate the world.

Everybody is probably expecting explosions of Michael Bay proportions. Hey, isn’t this film about atomic bombs? When it is finally time to detonate the thing, the highly-anticipated Trinity Test, the director uses deafening silence as audio for this blinding yellowish red explosion that could end humanity as we know it, turning something monstrous and destructive into a hypnotic display of fiery energy that just mesmerizes the eyes. Can I please have some of whatever Christopher Nolan is having? If he doesn’t win the directing Oscar this March, the Academy and I will be having a talk.

But he does not even stop there. The frightening audio you are anticipating, he does use along with some practical shaky effects, but in scenes where you least expect them. Most of the time, he uses that aggravating sound to frame the characters’ psyche, primarily that of Oppenheimer, effectively demonstrating the turmoil devouring him from within for the audience to not just see but rather also feel. That particular scene where Oppenheimer is hailed a hero by the American public juxtaposed with fervent images of charred cadavers is so out of this world. The irony! The imagery! The symbolism! Damn.

As far as acting is concerned, it seems like Murphy and Downey Jr. are at least guaranteed Oscar nominations, with Blunt scoring a supporting nom still within the realm of possibility despite the limited material and screen time she is given. While Downey Jr. provides solid support, it is Murphy who carries the film on his back, giving a masterclass in displaying emotions with subtle facial expressions alone. His portrayal is restricted most of the time, yet you can just feel the inner struggle.

As for the subject matter, it is, indeed, controversial. It wasn’t that long ago when the atomic bomb took the lives of innocent civilians on the other side of the Pacific. The debate is still on as to whether it was really necessary and, or course, we all know how the arms race that followed is still a constant threat, as if an axe hanging over all of our heads, that will continue to be until one crazy despot decides to push that red button. How far can deterrence really prevent a nuclear apocalypse? We can only guess.

This also provokes a debate on the role of film, as a form of art, in the narration of historical events that always seem to be a trigger not just for people but for entire nations. Can we really divorce the form from the subject matter? Is Oppenheimer condoning the use of such horrible weapons of mass destruction or or are we all just reading too much into a simple psychological profile of a prominent historical figure brought to life by the wonders of cinema? It is complicated. There is no right answer. This will always be this film’s double-edged sword.

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