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Review: Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer was one of the most anticipated films of the summer. In a nutshell, it was Christopher Nolan directing a movie about Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the atom bomb. And it was shot entirely on IMAX.

The previews looked spectacular. In some ways, Oppenheimer had the potential to be the blockbuster of all summer blockbusters. The pre-release buzz was sizzling. Audiences were salivating. Early reviews were solidly positive.

It seemed that Christopher Nolan had created a modern-day epic based on the definitive chapter of 20th Century history featuring the scientific genius, who was arguably the most important person who ever lived. He had been called the American Prometheus by virtue of the fact that he had unlocked the power of nature and physics that enabled humanity to destroy itself.

The importance and magnitude of the story cannot be overstated, though that astounding chapter of history might be fading from our collective memory in the year 2023 almost a century after the events took place.

Put simply, movie plots don’t get any bigger than this, particularly when you factor in that the story is based on actual events and a very real historical figure.

The movie has a lot to cover, beginning with a look at the complex man at the center of it all. Nolan portrays Oppenheimer as the genius that he was, a pioneer in the world of quantum physics who was on a par with the other bona fide 20th century genius who became more of a household name, Albert Einstein. The two men were contemporaries in real life, as shown in the movie.

Rather than depicting Oppenheimer as a stuffy, brainiac scientist, Nolan portrays him as a flesh-and-blood human being, complete with a healthy sexual libido. He has a wife and a mistress. Their romantic escapades are somewhat shockingly staged in several scenes involving full nudity, earning Oppenheimer an R-rating.

While adding some spice to its main character, Oppenheimer largely focuses on the real heart of the story -- the incredible tale of how a group of scientists, under Oppenheimer’s direction managed to apply theoretical physics and split atoms on their way to developing the world’s most devastating weapon.

Following the famous Los Alamos test (recreated in roughly the middle of the film), the second half of the movie charts Oppenheimer’s fall from grace, played out as a high-stakes political drama. After having become the father of the atomic age with the creation of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer opposed the development of an even more destructive device, the hydrogen bomb, which was exponentially more deadly. He subsequently found himself in the crosshairs of an ambitious politician (Lewis Strauss, played brilliantly by Robert Downey, Jr.) who made Oppenheimer the victim of a vicious, shameful kangaroo court.

In terms of balance, the first half of the movie works spectacularly despite the arguably gratuitous sex. It is a truly remarkable story of the greatest top-secret project the world has ever seen. America wanted the atom bomb for itself. There was no interest in sharing the technology with our allies, which in the days of WWII included the Russians, who were racing to develop their own atomic weapons. Security, espionage and sabotage were understandably key concerns in what became known as The Manhattan Project.

Though Oppenheimer was in many ways an unlikely choice to head up the team of scientists, he was intuitively the first name on the list for Lieutenant General Leslie Groves (played by Matt Damon).

Oppenheimer believed that the creation of a super weapon would not only bring an end to WWII but would create a new era of lasting global peace in which the exchange of nuclear weapons would be unthinkable. The movie offers a lot to think about and reflect upon.

Of course, the centerpiece of the movie is the legendary test in New Mexico that was code named Trinity. Historically, no one at the time was absolutely sure that the mega-explosion wouldn't trigger an atmospheric chain reaction that would destroy the planet. It was a terrifying possibility.

The detonation of the bomb is the most powerful visual element in all the trailers for the movie: the enormous fireball and shattering sound.

Interestingly, that moment in the movie is a little underwhelming by comparison. Key shots of the sequence from the trailers never appear in the actual film.

What’s interesting is that Oppenheimer was a movie being promoted on the basis of its IMAX format. A handful of theaters are even showing it on 70mm IMAX.

As it turns out the movie could play adequately on multiplex IMAX and Dolby with pretty much the same impact. This isn’t the cinematic equivalent of the parting of the Red Sea in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), which begged to be seen on the biggest screen you would find.

While I was hoping for effects that would justify seeing this movie on a giant screen, the fact of the matter is that it falls short of that kind of visual spectacle.

Oppenheimer never really lives up to the special effects splash teased in the trailers. From that standpoint, summer audiences may be a little disappointed in the “money shot” sequence.

What it does offer is a long look into the rise and fall of one of the most towering figures of the 20th century. Following the development and testing of the bomb in the first half of the film, audiences may find the second half to be comparatively less interesting though Oppenheimer’s downfall is told in fascinating detail. The casting and performances in Oppenheimer are spot on.

It was interesting that a movie about the atom bomb wouldn't show the horrifying details of what happened when those bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Those chilling details are relegated to character dialog instead of the kind of IMAX special effects that a movie like this could have delivered visually to underscore the devastation of those air strikes and gravity of President Truman’s decision to drop secretly developed super weapons on non-military, urban civilian populations in order to bring an early end to the war and allow our troops in the Pacific to return home.

It’s an ugly truth that this movie largely chooses to sidestep, and a missed opportunity to underscore the nightmare that Oppenheimer unleashed –one that haunted him the remainder of his life.

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