Explore power’s terrible temptation in “Oppenheimer”

Published 11:57 am Tuesday, September 12, 2023

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This week our silver screen is illuminated by a grand film, solemn and magnificent, like The Colossus of Rhodes. This towering cinematic achievement is “Oppenheimer,” the newest film from acclaimed and proven director, Christopher Nolan. 

Nolan has established his films as darlings of critical and commercial audiences alike, inviting many a comparison to an earlier compatriot, Spielberg, whose own work was equal measures popular and artistic. If this thread of comparison is to be extended to their respective films, then “Oppenheimer” is to Nolan’s work, what “Schindler’s List” (1993) is to Spielberg’s. “Oppenheimer” is a remarkably restrained work, considering Nolan’s sensibilities towards spectacular entertainment. Rather than seek to thrill, the film explores using spectacle in pursuit of deeper philosophical questions of power and responsibility. It’s an interpretation of our very real WWII era history, the minds and machinations behind the Manhattan Project reimagined, but nonetheless real. 

The focus of this film is the “father of the atomic bomb,” J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American theoretical physicist who in 1941 found himself appointed to the Manhattan Project, the American-led team of scientists, engineers and military officials who would bring the first atomic bomb into existence, forever changing the scope of the world. In exploring this man the film separates his life into three different chapters of examination, his studies in the 1920s, his work with the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, and his eventual senate trial in the 1950s. The film’s source material for Oppenheimer’s life is an excellent biography American Prometheus (2005 Bird & Sherwin), which tells Oppenheimer’s story through the circumstances of his life as equally as his work, appreciating the two as inseparable and mutual influences on each other. The film and the book place their greatest emotional emphasis on the psychology of this man who would create such terrible power, and who would be attracted to doing so in the first place. 

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Bringing the titular man to life is the tremendously talented Cillian Murphy, a long-working character actor, very recently recognized for his leading man capacity. Murphy is not only a spot-on casting in terms of appearance but also perfectly inhabits the psychological register of Oppenheimer, a man beset by terrible anxiety, great arrogance, and the ever-crushing burden of a brilliant mind. He was a man whose intellect and ego burned in equal brightness, but whose mannequin and taciturn features bely only aloofness. The rest of The Manhattan Project team is also wonderfully cast with many brilliant actors given small, but seamless performances. To give attention to all the stellar supporting cast would be too lengthy an exercise, but the film would be nothing without their performances. 

“Oppenheimer” is a long film and serious film. The film is weighing heavy questions in its consideration of atomic power, and it asks its viewers to be willing to grapple with these questions alongside the characters. We of course know the eventual trajectory of the story, but never before have we been able to appreciate the process, to stand on the precipice of history and of terrible power, to feel the tension of the finger above the button and the dread of what world may come in the aftermath. This journey will ask of your fortitude, but will reward you tenfold for your dedication. We hope to share this excellent film with you soon!