Peter W Sheehan 20 July 2023

This biographical, political thriller film tells the story of American scientist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, co-creator of the atomic bomb, and his later response to the development of the bomb.

OPPENHEIMER. Starring: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt and Matt Damon. Also, Robert Downey Jr, Kenneth Branagh, Florence Pugh and Gary Oldman. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (Strong sex, and a suicide scene). 180 min.

This film is a biographical look at Robert Oppenheimer (Murphy), who shares responsibility for the development of the atomic bomb detonated by the US over the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 during WWII, and a second atomic bomb that was dropped three days later over the Japanese city of Nagasaki.

Oppenheimer was a brilliant theoretical physicist and wartime head of the Los Alamos Laboratory in the US. He had a prime role in ‘The Manhattan Project’ which developed the weapon, and is largely credited as the father of the atomic bomb. The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin (2005).

Irish actor Murphy delivers a deeply moving performance as J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Damon convincingly plays Army General Leslie Groves, who was the chief Project overseer for The Manhattan Project. The film used real explosives to recreate the ferocity of the bomb blast, rather than use computer-generated graphics. Scenes of the blast are extraordinarily vivid and impactful, and the focus is on the testing the atomic bomb, not its actual deployment.

The film explores Oppenheimer’s ties to the Communist Party and the espionage activities in which he was reputedly involved. Oppenheimer thought that the atomic bomb was immensely powerful, but he went ahead in its creation. He didn’t know if the US could be trusted with the weapon, but he was certain the Nazis couldn’t. His wife, Kitty (Blunt) was seriously concerned about his developing the bomb, and conflicts existed among a number of the scientists with whom Oppenheimer worked.

Oppenheimer knew there was a slight chance that the bomb’s blast could ignite the earth’s atmosphere, but he nevertheless moved ahead. Most of the film’s locations are accurate depictions of real events and places in Oppenheimer’s life, and much of the plot is communicated from Oppenheimer’s point of view. Oppenheimer’s reservations about the moral consequences of what he did are especially well captured by Murphy, as he came to realise (and also ‘argue’ in the subsequent security-clearance attempts which aimed to discredit him) that it was necessary to control the power that he had created.

The film’s imagery and the political, intelligent nature of its scripting motivates viewers to reflect seriously upon the horrors of nuclear war. At a personal level, both Oppenheimer’s daughter and his ex-lover tragically suicided, and history records Oppenheimer as a martyr to McCarthyism.

This fast-paced film powerfully conveys the consequences of using atomic weaponry, and is a thoroughly absorbing account of American political history. It is appropriately grim and has remarkable visuals. With intelligent and sharp scripting, it makes it impossible not to relate the atomic bomb’s impact to contemporary threats of nuclear war.

The film has strong moral relevance. It doesn’t judge Oppenheimer; instead, it focuses on his experience. Under Nolan’s fluid, expert direction, and Murphy’s outstanding acting, it tells us unequivocally that nations should never use nuclear weaponry, whatever might be the reason for their wanting to do so.

Universal Pictures
Released 20 July 2023
Image: Cillian Murphy is J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer, written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan.
© Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.




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