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3rd August 2023

Meredith Taylor on Oppenheimer: “a fraught epic”

Meredith Taylor

At a time when the world has been holding its breath over the escalation of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine, a haunting vision of the future hangs over this fraught epic about the man who invented the iconic bomb that ended World War II.

English director Christopher Nolan frames his feature through a stimulating Washington based court investigation as Oppenheimer’s florid life and times flash back urgently forward to a needling score – from Cambridge to Leiden and then California and finally Los Alamos in New Mexico – providing thrilling social and political insight into the final stages of the Second World War.

Cillian Murphy is screen dynamite as Robert Oppenheimer, a Jewish scientist from New York, who was seen as a hero to many but later vilified as a threat to his country for questioning America’s arms race bravado with his learned opinions in those turbulent times. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of Robert Oppenheimer, Murphy leads a cast who each pull their weight in this mighty masterpiece that mesmerises for over three hours, the final segment is the most riveting and allows the stern but softly spoken Murphy to expose the soulful side of this conflicted but brilliant man.

Hoyte van Hotel’s coruscating cinematography is impeccable in vivid colour and black and white, the 15/70mm print showcasing Nolan’s most impressive film to date.

Oppenheimer serves both as a densely plotted character study and a simmering slice of history that also delves into the brutal tactics of the McCarthy era, but never at the expense of some dry humour and a wise perceptive overview from Tom Conti’s ageing Albert Einstein as the father of scientific breakthroughs. Meanwhile in the Los Alamos labs a selection of topflight theoreticians cut through the science by simply dropping marbles into jars to illustrate the difference between uranium and plutonium as fusion bomb components.

Performance-wise Downey is outstanding as Strauss, a major player in the Atomic Energy Commission and a monstrous ego; Matt Damon is masterful as Major Leslie Groves, in charge of security at the Manhattan Project; Emily Blunt (a steely Kitty) and Florence Pugh (a sensuous Tetlock) play the feisty women in Oppenheimer’s life and Jason Clarke’s Roger Robb (Special Council to the AEC) could put any cross-examiner in the shade. Gary Oldman gets a surprisingly powerful cameo as President Truman “people will remember who dropped the bomb, not who built it”.

Director/Writer: Christopher Nolan | Cast: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, Benny Safdie, Jason Clarke | 180′

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