by Victoria Alexander
Finally, Robert Downey, Jr. dazzles. Matt Damon gives a strong performance. It is a fascinating in-depth look that deserves all the Academy Awards it will win. I knew Dr. Edward Teller and he referenced the bombing of Hiroshima when replying to a question I asked him.
When we lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, my husband was a program manager developing the concept of Non-Lethal Defense at Los Alamos National Laboratory. We had many dinners at our house with Dr. Edward Teller. Dr. Teller maintained an office at LANL and was often in New Mexico. We went on trips to D.C. with him. See photo below:
When my husband was preparing to introduce Dr. Teller as the guest speaker at a conference, Dr. Teller told John not to introduce him as “the father of the hydrogen bomb” but rather as “father to his children and grandfather to his grandchildren.”
I visited Los Alamos National Laboratory on family day. I kept hoping to see one of the extraterrestrials rumored to be ensconced in “Complex lll” or a sighting of Bigfoot, who was once seen by a LANL scientist. It was a fantastic time socializing with the many brilliant scientists who worked at the Lab.
J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) was a brilliant Jewish chemist and physicist working on and developing the core structure of quantum mechanics. He was also, controversially, a “fellow traveler” of the Communist Party of the United States. Oppenheimer was not a card-carrying member, but he did go to meetings, gave speeches and had many friends who were defiant members. His brother Frank (Dylan Arnold) and his brother’s wife Jackie (Emma Dumont) were active members. Oppenheimer believed in its fundamental principles.
What director/writer Christopher Nolan does not show is the highly competitive, ruthless world of elite scientists. For Oppenheimer to have risen so fast being chosen by Lt. General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) as the scientific director of the top-secret Manhattan Project, would have ruffled the feathers of those who had more seniority and political clout than Oppenheimer. It did not matter if you had a P.H.D., everyone had at least one. What was important: Where you got your P.H.D., your field, and then, who headed your thesis committee. After running through those hurdles, how many peer-reviewed papers have you published?
Every scientist had one ultimate goal: A Nobel Prize. Oppenheimer’s Manhattan Project even had a Nobel Prize winner, Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh). What was the dynamics of so many divas?
You do not get to Oppenheimer’s position by being weak-minded.
Oppenheimer’s intimate circle included his longtime friend Isidor Rabi (David Krumholtz), UC Berkeley colleague Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett) and Hungarian Edward Teller (Benny Safdie). The dominant rivalry was between Oppenheimer and the colorful, deliberately rude Teller, who proposed the more extreme thermonuclear weapon (H-bomb) be created instead of an atomic bomb.
This caliber of scientist is arrogant and privileged.
Along with his appointment, Oppenheimer had a town built in Los Alamos. He then traveled extensively to hire the best scientists, with their families, to move to Los Alamos. He built houses, a school, a park, and everything that was needed to be a self-sufficient town. He had a great deal of power. Only when everyone was assembled did Oppenheimer reveal the purpose: They would create a bomb that would end World War ll.
There was never a philosophical or theoretical approach to developing the bomb. They knew the amount of area that would be affected and the damage that would be done. They made an estimate regarding the number of civilians that would be killed. Against protocol, Oppenheimer even demanded his communist brother Frank join the team.
Nolan shows Oppenheimer tormented over the devastation that he knew would be caused. He struggled with what he created, but he took the praise and glory. However, Nolan never shows the effects of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That would have compromised our feelings for the guilt-ridden Oppenheimer. As noted by Groves, $2 billion dollars was spent creating Oppenheimer’s world. Success was expected.
Oppenheimer famously quoted from the Bhagavadgita: 'now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ You can take that quote in several ways. I doubt that Oppenheimer was - in my opinion – near-suicidal – of achieving this world-changing event. It was no surprise. Immediately after the successful test explosion, he celebrated.
Nolan’s Oppenheimer has no ego and does not enjoy being on the cover of magazines or the adoration of the American public.
Nolan sets up Oppenheimer’s fall by his Oval Office meeting with President Harry Truman (Gary Oldham). Oppenheimer confesses to Truman: "I feel I have blood on my hands.” Accounts differ as to the exact words spoken, but historians agree that the comment infuriated the president. “Blood on his hands; damn it, he hasn’t half as much blood on his hands as I have. You just don’t go around bellyaching about it,” Truman said, according to the book, Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center by Ray Monk. Truman also called Oppenheimer a “cry-baby scientist” and said, “I don’t want to see that son of a bitch in this office ever again.”
Did Oppenheimer’s world-wide fame upset Truman who wanted to take all the credit for the bombings that ended World War ll?
Soon Oppenheimer spoke out against nuclear weapons insulting all the scientists and the public who had lauded him. He embarrassed President Truman. Was this why the worm turned, and Oppenheimer’s career was brutally eviscerated?
Influential Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.) spearheaded the development of thermonuclear weapons. He became the commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).
In 1947, after leaving LANL, Oppenheimer accepted an offer by Strauss to take up the directorship of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. The position came with astonishing perks: A yearly salary of $20,000, a rent-free 17th-century manor with a cook and groundskeeper surrounded by 265 acres of woodlands.
Oppenheimer’s vast art collection included works by Cezanne, Rembrandt, Renoir, Picasso and Van Gogh.
Eventually Strauss regretted his largess. He thought Oppenheimer was a Soviet spy and felt he was a threat to America. Strauss summoned Oppenheimer to his office and told him his top-security clearance had been revoked. Oppenheimer demanded a hearing to defend himself against the charges. His chief interrogator, AEC’s special counsel, Roger Robb (Jason Clarke), called many of Oppenheimer’s colleagues who discredited him. Teller’s testimony was the most damaging.
Oppenheimer’s life was spread open revealing controversial details: His close relationship with card-carrying communist Chevalier who he lied to protect and a night with his troubled ex-fiancée, communist Tatlock, (Florence Pugh) while married to Kitty (Emily Blunt). Only a few of his colleagues defended him. With the accusation of espionage already decided, Oppenheimer lost his position on the Atomic Energy Commission's advisory board.
Nolan’s film is extraordinary cinema. Murphy holds the center showing the public agony Oppenheimer immediately felt after seeing what the atomic bomb caused. Was he a self-involved victim tormented with his fame? He became a historical figure in his lifetime then attempted to sabotage the work he had engineered. However, his morality stopped when dealing with the women in his life. Regardless of his emotional suffering, few of his colleagues agreed with him.
The film’s length is justified by not skipping over Oppenheimer’s complex life. The cast supporting Murphy are all at their finest, giving career best performances.
Much has been written about this being Nolan’s first foray into sexually explicit content. Many directors shy away from this in their films. Nolan gives Pugh and Murphy a sensual scene showing off his talent in exploring this subject.
The ALL is Mind; The Universe is Mental.”
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