Film: “Oppenheimer” directed by Christopher Nolan
Why does it seem that non-Americans often make the best American films? Cillian (pronounced Killian) Murphy, who plays the title role in “Oppenheimer” is Irish, while Emily Blunt (who plays Kitty Oppenheimer) is a Brit, and Tom Conti (Albert Einstein) is a Scot.
Provenance be damned, and let the joyous news be spread: “Oppenheimer” is the best movie of 2023, in a year when the industry needs all the help it can get. Put simply, it’s a Marvel superhero movie with a brain.
The superhero is J. Robert Oppenheimer, played with the right degree of humility and yes, saintliness by Murphy. The reluctant, inwardly tortured “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” Oppy would be pilloried later in life by McCarthyites determined to smear him as a Communist sympathizer and to rob him of his do-gooder legacy.
Why? Well, it frankly didn’t help that Oppy was what was termed a “premature anti-Fascist” (i.e., he gave money to the Spanish Loyalists.) Or that he was a womanizer who had both a neurotic mistress (Florence Pugh) and who chose a wife (Blunt) who was already married to somebody else.
But Murphy, Blunt, and Pugh are just a few of the big boldfaced names in “Oppenheimer.” The movie has been cast with more stars than there are in the universe. And it’s fun identifying who’s who along the way.
Matt Damon provides a funny sharp stick in the eye as Leslie Groves, the gruff military type who hires Oppy to lead the Manhattan Project. Rami Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) is quietly wonderful as the scientist who tries to salvage Oppy’s reputation at the Congressional hearings in the 1950s.
But Robert Downey Jr. nearly walks off with the film as Dr. Lewis Strauss, Oppy’s colleague on the Atomic Energy Commission. Post-Alamos, he is gunning for a Cabinet position in the Eisenhower Administration and is pulling out all the stops to get it. His Iago-like performance reminds me of what Harry Truman once said about politicians and Congress: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”
Are you a science nerd, perhaps? Take heart. Ask yourself what other film this summer will drop such illustrious names as Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), Edward Teller (Bennie Safdie) and Enrico Fermi (D’antan Deferrari)? Your ego will be flattered up to the ninth moon of Jupiter.
The film switches back and forth between color and black-and-white, and between the confirmation hearings of the 1950s and the Los Alamos period (WWII), when Oppy and his gang of physicists built the bomb. Don’t even think about leaving your seat during the test run scene in the New Mexico desert. It is Christopher Nolan at his directorial finest.
Please be advised: the film is three hours long and in parts, a bit talky. The pace is so quick-fire and so much territory is covered, your mind may frequently spin out of control. But the sight of Oppy wearing his signature hat and smoking his pipe will be enough to soothe every psyche. If only he had lived (he passed in 1967) to see this marvelous tribute. Bravo, Christopher Nolan, CBE.
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