Who would have thought a three-hour biopic (with thriller intent) about atomic physics would turn out to be 2023’s summer blockbuster? A blockbuster for adults. You’ll be on the edge of your seat the entire time because here, finally, is pithy, challenging, exciting, mind-expanding, engrossing, quality educational cinema at its best.
The film opens with a reminder that the new-universe Greek gods punished Prometheus, a god from the previous universe, by chaining him to a rock for all eternity. He was sentenced to having his continually regrowing liver ripped out daily by birds of prey. Why? Because he’d given the forbidden gift of fire to humankind.
‘Oppenheimer’Native New Yorker J.R. Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) studied quantum mechanics at England’s Cambridge University. (Quantum wasn’t being taught in America yet.) There, he was encouraged by rock star Danish physicist Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) to ditch lab work and head to Germany’s University of Göttingen in 1926 and really let his mind expand.
Oppenheimer’s British professor scoffs at the suggestion, saying that Oppenheimer’s math isn’t up to par. Bohr counters by saying that math is to physics what reading music is to musicians—the important thing is to be able to hear the music in one’s head. Can Oppenheimer hear the music? He can.
His research and reputation soon get him the job of heading up University of California–Berkeley’s theoretical physics program, where, as one of those geniuses whose brilliance is close to madness, his sanity is threatened by haunting astrophysicist visions of stars collapsing into black holes and the mind-boggling size of the cosmos. At the urging of his sometimes mistress (Florence Pugh), he also starts attending labor party meetings and taking a prolonged whiff of communism.
If You Build It, America WinsWith a mandate from Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), Oppenheimer directs the famed Manhattan Project nuclear weapon program for the United States.
The fruit of his labors eventually levels the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II, which begets Oppenheimer international fame, whereupon he seeks to turn his involvement into a platform urging nuclear armistice. The revoking of his security clearance as a U.S. Energy Commission adviser crushes his drive and activism.
Inventing the atomic bomb and then campaigning against nuclear weapons appears to have been the all-time best example of trying to "close the barn door after the cow got out." One imagines that had Oppenheimer been born later, he might have heeded “Jurassic Park” character Ian Malcolm’s warning: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” But since it's highly probable that that very line is based on Oppenheimer himself, that's too much silly "Back to the Future" chicken-or-egg conjecture to contemplate.
Other Story Lines
Based on Martin J. Sherwin and Kai Bird’s 2005 biography, “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” Christopher Nolan’s film is basically a lot of procedural scenes containing brilliant-minded men talking, such as theoretical physicist Edward Teller (Bennie Safdie) and nuclear scientist Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), and of course Albert Einstein (Tom Conti).
Another related timeline involves, as mentioned, Oppenheimer’s 1954 security clearance hearing—a kangaroo court intended to railroad Oppenheimer—via a committee spearheaded by predatory special counsel Roger Robb (Jason Clarke).
In a film featuring advanced math and theoretical sciences, most of the moviegoing public won’t understand the minutiae, but Nolan demonstrates that good storytelling trumps the details.
I found "Oppenheimer" to ultimately underline with vehemence the philosophical concept that mind and matter are the same. Out of mere mathematical scribbles and hieroglyphs on paper, concerning things that the human eye cannot perceive let alone prove, evolved the titanic power to incinerate 199,000 humans. Thoughts are supremely powerful, and when they manifest tangibly in the world, like this, in forms such as beyond-deadly atomic and hydrogen bombs, it's usually a sign that humans have somewhere along the line cast out the divine.