Review: Oppenheimer will blow you away (literally)

By Aliya Zuberi

KARACHI: The summer of 2023 will always be remembered as the year of blockbuster hits. And one of those hits is Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. The mastermind before the Batman Trilogy handpicked a star studded cast to tell the story of the man who was known as “The Father of the Atom Bomb.” But Nolan doesn’t just tell a story, he makes you live it. And living through one of the most catastrophic world events will, without a doubt, blow you away. Oppenheimer is not a movie that should be missed.

The movie is set in three different timelines and there is no particular order to them. The first timeline in the movie is a black and white sequence of the Atomic Energy Commission’s chief Admiral Lewis Strauss attending a US Cabinet Selection Committee hearing. The second timeline covers Robert Oppenheimer attending a closed door investigation held by the National Security Board. The third sequence in the movie starts right at the beginning and tells the story of who J. Robert Oppenheimer is. The movie is told through the narratives of two of the most important people in the story; Oppenheimer and Strauss.

Based on the biography called American Prometheus, we are introduced to a young Oppenheimer played by Cillian Murphy. The son of Jewish immigrants, despite his brilliant mind, he was unable to make a lasting impression in the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, due to his clumsiness. While his theoretical mind caught the ire of Professor Patrick Blackett, he does impress Neils Bohr, who advices him to take on theoretical physics in Germany at Göttingen University. This is where Oppenheimer crosses paths with some of the most renowned men in science including  Werner Heisenberg, Enrico Fermi, and Edward Teller (who are key players later on in the movie). Eventually, Oppenheimer returns to America with the aim to introduce quantum mechanics to the country where he also befriends Ernest Lawrence. He starts off with just one student but eventually people begin to flock to his classroom.

Oppenheimer makes a name for himself at Berkley, in more ways than one. His left wing ideologies gained the dislike of his unionized colleagues but he continued to be sympathetic to the communist ideology, actively donated to the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War and sent money to the aid of scientists who fled Nazi Germany. It is during this time he met Jean Tatlock (played by Florence Pugh). The two were engaged in an on again and off again, almost toxic relationship until he eventually met his wife Kitty. Both the women in his life had communist ties, and so did his brother Frank. Oppenheimer never formally joined the Communist Party but his involvement did bring him to the FBIs attention.

At this point, we can’t help notice that Nolan glossed over the roles of the women in Oppenheimer’s life. In the movie, Tatlock hardly gets enough screen time, their romance seems fleeting. When in reality, Tatlock played a very important role in the physicist’s life. She introduced Oppenheimer to the world of political causes, leaving a lasting impact on his life and beliefs so much so, he named the Trinity in her honor. In the movie, Kitty Oppenheimer is reduced to an alcoholic mess. In reality, she wasn’t a very likeable woman but was a supportive wife who stood by her husband till the end. Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh give their roles their best, but considering how small their roles were, there was so much more left to be desired.

This is the point where the movie picks up pace. With the second world war in full swing, Oppenheimer has his hands tied. He wants to aid the government in whatever way he can but his left wing ideologies keep him away from any classified projects. That is until Colonel Leslie Groves (Matt Damon)and Lt. Col. Kenneth Nichols approach him regarding the Manhattan Project. Germany, it seems, has gotten a head start on weaponizing nuclear fission and America wants to beat them to it. Oppenheimer, in his dedication to the project, manages to convince the most hesitant of men to join in on the Manhattan Project.

With a limited time period to get the atomic bomb ready, issues in his personal life and discourse over how to go about the development, the audience can feel the pressure that Oppenheimer had to shoulder. Up until this point, the movie is a slight bit difficult to keep track off. With so many key players, we often end up losing track of who is who. Cillian Murphy dominates our screen. Although the real Oppenheimer was supposedly hard to like, we cannot help but feel drawn to the Oppenheimer in the movie, but that probably has more to do with the actor himself. Murphy dedicated himself the role. reportedly ate only an almond a day to fit into the physique of the man himself, and it shows. When the scene of the Trinity testing finally approaches, the tension is palpable. Just like Oppenheimer held his breath as the countdown began, despite knowing what happens, audiences sit in tense anticipation.

One would expect that that particular scene would be loud. Afterall, it is an atomic bomb going off. But the silence is what grips us. In that minute of silence and blinding lights we sit and wonder what the people of Japan felt. Its a moment that will haunt you just like it haunted Oppenheimer. And when the silence is over, the deafening blast doesn’t leave us. As the Americans celebrate, the loud bang lingers in the background, reminding us of how poignant the moment is. Oppenheimer is plagued with visions of what the blast did to the victims but the world around him is celebrating. Murphy does a brilliant job at showing what a defeated man, riddled with guilt would look like.

Oppenheimer leaves a lasting impact on the audience because of just how believable it is. Nolan is known for his eye for realism and so he chose to go big. Similar to what is shown in the movie, his team created the entire set of Los Alamos from scratch. Similarly, he didn’t use CGI or a green screen to mimic the Trinity explosion, rather the explosion was real, a result of a mixture of gasoline and propane with aluminum powder and magnesium to mimic the instant blinding flash. He also pays attention to detail when it comes to casting. His head actors resembled their real life counter parts just as closely as was possible. Cillian Murphy wasn’t the only one who dedicated himself to the role. Tom Conti, Matt Damon and Robert Downey Jr. both bear a uncanny resemblance to the men they were portraying. All of these efforts, makes the movie all that more eerie.

This sets the scene for the other two narratives in the Oppenheimer movie. As he is battling his guilt over the bombings, Oppenheimer accepts a position in Princeton where he meets Lewis Strauss. Played by Robert Downey Jr, it takes a full minute to realize that he isn’t an ally. He lets his ego and insecurities bring about the downfall of a man who dedicated his life to his country. In stark contrast is Oppenheimer, who allows himself to become a target in hopes it will absolve his sins.

For many, we go into the movie blaming Oppenheimer for being the leading cause behind the destruction of an entire nation. We come out of the movie wondering if he had any idea of just how powerful he was. The last scene, the conversation with Albert Einstein and Oppenheimer, will haunt you as the weight of their words crushes us. It is a harsh reminder of everything Oppenheimer created and then tried to undo.

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