J. Robert Oppenheimer had close connections with Princeton, including his acquaintanceship with Albert Einstein and his tenure as head of the Institute for Advanced Study (one of the four colleges then in this New Jersey town). Our local nonprofit movie theater was able to arrange a U.S. premiere last Thursday, the day before the film’s general release. The Garden Theater produced a classy event—food, wine, free popcorn!—and attendance was enthusiastic.
But it was the movie itself, directed by Christopher Nolan, that made an indelible impression on me. Three hours long, and not a minute wasted. The music and some of the visuals, especially in the beginning, suggested how the young Oppenheimer grappled with the mysterious principles of theoretical physics and quantum mechanics, the energy of the stars, and the movement of atoms. And their implications. He became the person who pulled all these ideas (and conflicting scientists’ egos) together to create the atomic bomb. When the Manhattan Project began, the United States was already four years behind German development of atomic weapons. While there were Americans who questioned whether the United States should deploy such a destructive weapon, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Hitler wouldn’t hesitate.
Oppenheimer believed his role was to develop the weapon; it was up to the politicians when, where—and if—it should be used. Then politics threatened to undo him. The 1954 closed-door hearing in which his security clearance hung in the balance jeopardized his career. Physics was a field with too many secrets, and his government wanted to know whether he could be trusted with them. The brutal questioning and testimony at that hearing is intercut with testimony in another hearing—the Senate confirmation debate on Lewis Strauss’s nomination to be Secretary of Commerce. As chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Strauss had become an Oppenheimer’s implacable enemy, because of the scientist’s qualms about developing the hydrogen bomb and remarks Strauss perceived as insults. The movie contains some astonishing quotes, and, apparently all are accurate.
While these may sound like dry bureaucratic proceedings, director Christopher Nolan has created a movie of incredible tension. Irish actor Cillian Murphy, as Oppenheimer, and Robert Downey, Jr., as Strauss, are formidable antagonists. The cast is further strengthened by the performances of Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Kenneth Branagh, Josh Hartnett, and Rami Malek, among many others.
The story is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. The production team had only three months of preparation, and the film was shot in just 57 days. I see it as a testament to the value of being focused, whereas films whose creation sprawls over many months lose their edge. The powerful result speaks for itself.
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 94%; audiences: 94%.