Christopher Nolan’s latest film centers on the man who directed the project that built that first nuclear weapon. J Robert Oppenheimer was picked by then Colonel Leslie Groves to lead the scientific laboratory that would build the bomb. The movie is a triumph of construction, pacing, suspense (even though the viewer knows the story and its outcome), human interest, and story telling devoid of super heroes, jet fighters, or much in the way of conventional movie action.

Why Groves hired Oppenheimer remains mysterious. The latter had no administrative experience, almost everyone in his life from friends to lovers were communists, and he was personally unstable. He tried to poison his teacher Patrick Blackett (a future Nobelist in physics). His only punishment was a few unhelpful visits to a psychiatrist. Perhaps, it was his notorious arrogance which impressed the equally arrogant Groves combined with a vision as to how to organize the lab that impressed Groves enough to make the appointment. When the pair first meet, Groves asks how Oppenheimer will recruit a bevy of scientific superstars without a Nobel Prize. He asks how Groves will act without a star on his collar. He replies that its on the way. Oppenheimer remains silent. A first rate scientist, he never did get a Nobel. When asked what the J in his name stood for he says “nothing” – it was Julius. Oppenheimer’s subsequent ability to recruit and integrate a mob of geniuses into a successful project that was an extreme long shot from start to end proved the instrument of its success.

Cillian Murphy, an Irish actor, is more than brilliant as the Jewish New York City native. His depiction of Oppenheimer’s life long conflicts, confusion, and inner torment combined with the pride of his accomplishment at Los Alamos is as dazzling a piece of film acting you are ever likely to see. He embodies every nuance of Oppenheimer’s complicated persona such that you are seeing and hearing the real person and sense the awful reality of his accomplishment. Watching him act is like listening to Caruso or Callas sing. Remarkable!

Oppenheimer’s guilt and angst over what he had unleashed in the New Mexico desert was just a continuation of his lifelong oscillation between supreme egoism and insecurity. His erudition and knowledge of high culture is graphically shown by Nolan’s jumping back and forth through Oppenheimer’s different phases of life.

His conflict with Lewis Strauss perfectly acted by Robert Downey, Jr is a little overdone; at its end Strauss appears a bit like a mustache curling villain. Not Downey’s fault, but that of the script. There seems to be no part that the actor can’t handle – from superhero to businessman turned bureaucrat, Downey can do them all. The only things I would have liked to have changed was the switch to black and white photography during the period of Strauss’s failed senate confirmation hearing as Eisenhower’s pick to be secretary of commerce and a better hairpiece for Downey who allowed himself to be photographed as a wrinkled man looking older than his mid 50s. The black and white gimmick was distracting and took the viewer’s attention away from the story. The hairpiece was unnecessary as Strauss had no hair at this point in his life. Despite these objections, Downey’s performance is of award winning caliber. Strauss’s failure to gain senate confirmation was the revenge of the scientists who blamed him for the rigged hearing which denied Oppenheimer’s security clearance renewal thus ending his work for the government and his directorship at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton. Ironically, it was Strauss who had offered the job to Oppenheimer.

The rest of the very large cast was equally impressive. Everyone is on the mark. Particularly notable is Matt Damon as General Groves. He is buff, direct, aggressive, and surprisingly reasonable when necessary. He was as important to the mission’s success as Oppenheimer.

The two women in Oppenheimer’s life during the span of the movies are Emily Blunt as his wife Kitty and Florence Pugh as his psychiatrist lover Jean Tatlock. She kills herself over general despair and perhaps over her conflicting feelings towards Oppenheimer – both women were communists and both mentally unstable. Kitty manipulates Oppenheimer into marrying her by getting pregnant. She turns out to be a terrible mother, totally unable to perform ordinary maternal duties. There’s a third lover who briefly appears, Ruth Tolman played by Louise Lombard, but their affair is ignored. Both Pugh and Blunt are perfect in their roles as attractive highly neurotic women.

Noland managed to get A list stars to appear in bit parts. Kenneth Branagh appears in two brief scenes as Niels Bohr, the second of which has him almost eat Oppenheimer’s cyanide laced apple. Gary Oldman as Harry Truman has a two minute meeting with the physicist in which the latter convinces the president that he’s a sissy whom he never wants to see again.

Ludwig Göransson’s score is emotionally apposite and drives the flow of the film. His use of a loud thumping sound is perfect the first two times it’s used. Its third appearance reveals it to be the loud stamping of Oppie’s team indicating their approval of his job as lab directory after the successful testing of the bomb.

But at its end it is the film’s status as a work of art that will keep an audience wide awake, engrossed in the story, and enveloped by a unique creation for three hours. This triumph is the result of its writer/director’s vision, pacing, and integration of the emotional and professional lives of the many actors who enabled one of mankind’s epochal achievements. This is a movie that will endure when virtually all of its contemporary films vanish. A must see. As close to a masterpiece as a movie can be.

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