At The Movies: Oppenheimer a flawed but bold attempt at making a scientist a tragic hero

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At The Movies: Oppenheimer a flawed but bold attempt at making a scientist a tragic hero

Oppenheimer (M18)

180 minutes, opens on Thursday
3 stars

The story: This portrait of the man known as the father of the atomic bomb, American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), puts a spotlight on his time as the World War II director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, heading a scientific team trying to build the weapon ahead of the Germans. His relationships with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) and Katherine “Kitty” Puening (Emily Blunt) are shown, along with his interactions with friends and colleagues in science and government, such as businessman and bureaucrat Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr). Adapted from the 2005 biography American Prometheus: The Triumph And Tragedy Of J. Robert Oppenheimer, written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.

Christopher Nolan’s films have always featured heroes whose neurons fire faster than everyone else’s.

Jessica Chastain’s Murphy Cooper had to solve a mathematics equation to take humanity off a doomed Earth in Interstellar (2014). In Inception (2010), Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio) commands the respect of the dream heist team because he keeps proving to be the smartest guy in the room.

Being smart, however, has not made fictional geniuses Murphy or Dom happy; they are isolated people.

In the American Prometheus book, Nolan found a hyperintelligent main character with a real supermind who has to, as Blunt puts it in an interview, “live with the trauma of that brain”.

The “tragedy” in the book’s title gives a clue about the price he pays for being able to see inside the atom, but failing to read the motives of those who feel threatened by his cognitive prowess.

Nolan likes to play with the format of storytelling as much as he likes telling the story, so this film features a non-linear chronological structure, in addition to techniques such as giving speaking parts to a platoon of scientists, leading to a bottom-numbing three-hour runtime.

This reviewer wishes that he could call Oppenheimer a triumph because Nolan’s technical innovations deserve recognition. But the non-linear timeline appears to be an attempt at creating psychological depth and tonal unity out of a creation that covers too much ground.

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