Oppenheimer Tries to Restore A Reputation

A biopic about physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy), scenes shift back and forth throughout his life, with particular attention to those trying to destroy his reputation after his face appears on Time magazine as the father of the atomic bomb. Although he mostly speaks softly in the film, suggesting that he is a mild person, he is often drowned out by loud music by Ludwig Göransson as if to imply that the text is too prolix for filmviewers. Based on American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2006) by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, the content is more accessible in print than on the screen unless a patron requests titles. Nevertheless, the film explains the choice of the word Prometheus, the Greek legend of someone who stole fire from the Gods for the use of humans and lived a life of torture thereafter.

The earliest part of the film tries to demonstrate that his talents in mathematical physics, following the theories of Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), take him beyond Harvard to Cambridge and a doctorate at the University of Göttingen. He returned to Harvard for his teaching career but also taught at Cal Tech, the University of Leiden, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, the University of California at Berkeley, and Princeton.

Focused so much on physics theory, he has difficulty with other parts of his life. Tall and thin, he is a chain smoker, dying of throat cancer at age 62. He leaves Cambridge because lab work bores him. During presentations by other scholars, he is known for hijacking the discussion. Once counseled by a psychiatrist while at Harvard, he later seeks comfort by horseback riding, sexual encounters, and studying Hinduism.

His personal life is complicated: His first relationship with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), breaks up, though is rekindled from time to time after his marriage with Katherine (“Kitty”) Puening (Emily Blunt). Both women are members of the Communist Party in their youth, but so is his brother Frank (Dylan Arnold). His first interest in political affairs apparently occurs when he is 30 as he develops a circle of friends, including sending funds opposing the fascist takeover of Spain that are made through the American Communist Party channel.

In October 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt authorized a secret project to develop an atomic bomb. In May 1942, National Defense Research Committee Chairman James B. Conant (Steve Coulter), one of Oppenheimer’s Harvard instructors, asks him to develop certain calculations that would aid the project. Four months later, General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) is authorized to form what became the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, and he hires Oppenheimer to head the secret weapons lab.

Much of the film depicts the complexity of dealing with Oppenheimer’s bosses and subordinates, the difficulty of obtaining a security clearance, and ultimately involves a test of the bomb in Los Alamos. Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.), who seeks influence over the project, later justifies why the bomb should be dropped twice on Japan—a message that bombing would continue until surrender.

One of his conflicts at Los Alamos is with Edward Teller (Bennie Safdie), who wants to develop a more destructive hydrogen bomb rather than an atomic bomb. Oppenheim disagrees, fearing that the weaponry is far too destructive and dangerous but keeps Teller on the payroll. Although Oppenheimer makes the same case during a White House meeting with President Harry Truman (Gary Oldman), the latter sides with Teller, who was greenlighted to develop the H-bomb. Because Oppenheimer makes political pleas, for example hoping that the United Nations will put the new weapons under some sort of restraint, Strauss undertakes efforts to damage Oppenheimer’s reputation but his campaign also sinks his own desire to become Defense Secretary. Hearings designed to link Oppenheimer with the Soviet acquisition of nuclear weapons technology occupy much of the film, giving the impression that the real quest is which political figure tries hardest to score the most points. He then drops out of political developments regarding the formation of the International Atomic Energy Agency and is awarded a Medal of Merit, perhaps reluctantly, by President Truman in 1946. Later, President John F. Kennedy decided to award  him the Enrico Fermi Award as a gesture of political rehabilitation.

For bringing many facts to light in a dazzling manner, the Political Film Society has nominated Oppenheimer, directed by Christopher Nolan, for best film exposé of 2023.  MH

Scroll to Top