NEW YORK (OSV News) – If writer-director Christopher Nolan’s impressive but uneven portrait “Oppenheimer” (Universal) is anything to go by, famed theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer was a highly complex man. As portrayed by Cillian Murphy in a layered performance, he was at once charismatic yet naive, by turns a champion and victim of his times.
Just as its protagonist had his highs and lows, so Nolan’s three hour-long film has its strong passages and weaker chapters. The depiction of Oppenheimer’s collaboration with the U.S. Army’s hard-driving Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) in the race to develop the atomic bomb during World War II, for instance, is compelling.
So too is the recounting of his far more complicated relationship with former patron-turned-critic Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). A wealthy businessman who reached the rank of admiral during his time in the Navy, in the late 1940s Strauss served on the newly-established Atomic Energy Commission alongside Oppenheimer — and the two came into conflict.
Strauss’ eventual opposition to him contributed to the travails the left-leaning Oppenheimer faced once anti-Communist sentiment became prevalent during the early stages of the Cold War. These troubles culminated in a hearing to see whether Oppenheimer’s temporarily suspended security clearance should be permanently revoked.
Less intriguing than the sequences devoted to these subjects are those detailing Oppenheimer’s early career and his murky personal life. Though in some respects devoted to his feisty, bibulous wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), a biologist, Oppenheimer doesn’t hesitate to comfort his troubled psychiatrist ex-girlfriend, Jean (Florence Pugh), by carrying on an affair with her.
Needlessly frank scenes of their erotic interaction, both before and after Oppenheimer’s marriage, not only prevent endorsement of this biography for youngsters but constitute material that even some mature viewers may wish to avoid. That’s a shame because, as an absorbing historical retrospective, the movie might have had considerable educational value.
If its treatment of bedroom behavior is questionable, “Oppenheimer” is on firmer ground in its balanced approach to the morality of war. Enigmatic and noncommittal, its namesake wavers between rejoicing over Japan’s belated surrender and meditating on the horrors required to bring it about.
It may never be definitively established how many soldiers and civilians would have died in an American invasion of the Japanese homeland. But it is safe to say that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people alive today would never have been born had their forebears fallen in that struggle.
As one of the figures primarily responsible for averting such a catastrophe – at however great a price – Oppenheimer, who died in 1967, aged 62, has left a weighty legacy. While this extensive profile of him may have its flaws, it’s an immersive and thought-provoking experience that touches on both the best and worst in human nature.
The film contains strong sexual content, including graphic activity and recurring upper female nudity, an adultery theme, brief gruesome sights, about a half-dozen profanities, a couple of milder oaths, several rough terms and occasional crude and crass language. The OSV News classification is A-III – adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
John Mulderig is media reviewer for OSV News. Follow him on Twitter @JohnMulderig1.