Producers: Emma Thomas, Charles Roven and Christopher Nolan   Director: Christopher Nolan   Screenplay: Christopher Nolan   Cast: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Tom Conti, Kenneth Branagh, Benny Safdie, Jason Clarke, Macon Blair, Dylan Arnold, Gustaf Skarsgård, David Krumholtz, Matthew Modine, David Dastmalchian, Alden Ehrenreich, Jefferson Hall, Tony Goldwyn, Michael Angarano, Jack Quaid, Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby, Dane DeHaan, Danny Deferrari, James D’Arcy, Devon Bostick, Alex Wolff, Scott Grimes, Josh Zuckerman, Matthias Schweighöfer, Christopher Denham, Emma Dumont, James Remar and Gary Oldman    Distributor: Universal

Grade: C+

An audacious attempt to fold together a study of the tortured psyche of the man who led the Manhattan Project with a broader portrait of the paranoid psyche of the nation he served, all wrapped up in a tale of personal political vindictiveness, Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” is at once admirable and frustrating, remarkable for its ambition but only fitfully compelling in execution.     

Nolan’s script is based on the 2005 book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherman, and part of the problem is that it strives desperately to be faithful to the prodigious research embodied in that mammoth tome.  There are so many characters flitting through the narrative, some only very briefly, that while a few of the actors playing them make a powerful impression in mere minutes (Casey Affleck as military intelligence agent Boris Pash, Tom Conti as Albert Einstein, Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr, an uncredited Gary Oldman as President Truman, Rami Malek as physicist David Hill), most have little opportunity to register.  Nolan’s habit of jumping quickly from one narrative thread to another and back again, accentuated by Jennifer Lame’s editing, which veers wildly from languid to brusque, contributes to the fractured, disjointed effect.

Of course, perhaps that’s intended as a cinematic reflection of the emphasis on the haphazardness of reality embedded in the principles of theoretical physics on which the creation of the atomic bomb was predicated.  But if so it’s a technique that in this case remains rather hypothetical.  One can’t really fault Nolan’s failure to elucidate the principles of quantum mechanics in ways that most of us ordinary folks in the audience could begin to understand; he tries on a couple of occasions to offer the gist of the idea, but the mystery will remain just that for most of us mere mortals.  In any event, structuring the film as if its plot threads were subatomic particles randomly colliding with one another doesn’t work.

Nonetheless there is a clear method in Nolan’s overall approach.  The overarching narrative thread, which runs from the very beginning through the dramatic conclusion, centers on the fraught relationship between Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, resembling Montgomery Clift) and Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr., returning impressively to real acting after toiling for years in the MCU).  We see their first meeting, in 1947, when an extravagantly obsequious Strauss welcomes the celebrated Oppenheimer to the directorship of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and watches from a distance as Oppenheimer renews his acquaintance with Einstein, a fellow at the campus.  In Nolan’s clever if disheartening application of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to human terms, Strauss, in reality a most ambitious and conniving man despite his Uriah Heepish manner, misinterprets the two men’s unheard conversation as being about him; what they really said to one another is revealed only at the film’s end.

Nonetheless Strauss’s reaction to that episode, and to another in which he felt Oppenheimer denigrated his expertise, leads inexorably to two events that are covered extensively later in the film: the 1954 closed hearing under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission, of which Strauss was director, that stripped Oppenheimer of his security clearance, and Strauss’s senatorial confirmation hearing for the position of Secretary of Commerce in 1958.  The connection between Oppenheimer and Strauss is depicted as a collision between two men that has an explosive result for both, reflecting in human terms nature of the weapon whose fabrication Oppenheimer was instrumental in shepherding.

The creation of the gadget, as it came to be called, is folded into the story through a biographical sketch of Oppenheimer’s life, from his studies in Europe in the twenties through his appointment as an instructor in theoretical physics at UC Berkeley.  It’s there that he’s approached in 1942 by the army’s Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to lead the super-secret Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb.  The choice was made despite his known leftist views, and his connections with—though not membership in—the American Communist Party through individuals like Haakon Chevalier (Jefferson Hall), a party organizer; his own brother Frank (Dylan Arnold), a party member as was his wife Jackie (Emma Dumont); and Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) a volatile psychiatrist and committed Marxist with whom Oppenheimer had a torrid, tempestuous affair.  It’s a matter that will later be brought up in the 1954 AEC hearing, where shark-like prosecutor Roger Robb (Jason Clarke) and hostile witnesses, among them Kenneth Nichols (Dane DeHaan), hone in on those associations, as well as the communist past of Oppenheimer’s sharp-tongued wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), to smear his loyalty, while his defense counsel Lloyd Garrison (Macon Blair), not permitted even to see much of the evidence, can do little to respond.

The development of the bomb is covered in considerable detail, with notables like physicists Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), Isidor Rabi (David Krumholtz) and Enrico Fermi (Danny Deferrari) among the army of experts recruited to serve on the project (the notorious Klaus Fuchs, played by Christopher Denham, appears fleetingly).  A good deal is made of the construction of a town to house them and the project at the remote site of Los Alamos, and of the bickering among them as to which hypotheses should be followed up over others. 

It all culminates, of course, in the initial testing of the device, the movie’s visual big bang, followed by the debate over whether to use it against Japan, Germany having already surrendered. (The actual detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not shown, but reports about them are heard from Oppenheimer’s perspective, on radio.)  That in turn leads to the portrayal of Oppenheimer’s growing misgivings about what he was instrumental in creating and his opposition to the development of a hydrogen bomb championed by Teller, at a time when news of Soviet nuclear capability was emerging. That made him a logical target of the national mentality which encouraged the Red Scare of the fifties, used cannily by Strauss for his own purposes, personal as much as principled.

Though the structural decisions Nolan makes in relating his interconnected plot elements to one another might leave some viewers feeling adrift in detail (and rather exhausted as the film moves toward the three-hour point), “Oppenheimer” does build dramatic energy in its final reels as the Strauss senatorial vote comes down to the wire (even if a throwaway reference to a certain senator from Massachusetts comes across as gratuitously glib).  And throughout there are occasional scenes of genuine potency, along with some moments of dark humor (especially in exchanges between Oppenheimer and Groves). 

And even when things get a mite tedious, one can bask in the performances.  Murphy is quietly intense, bringing an underlying complexity to the character that calls to mind Daniel Day-Lewis’ riveting turn as Lincoln, and Damon has a field day in the showier part as Groves, though one shouldn’t discount Paul Newman’s version of him in Roland Joffé’s 1989 “Fat Man and Little Boy.”  Downey is a standout as Strauss, standing toe-to-toe with Murphy in a far more flamboyant, but equally effective, mode. The women in Oppenheimer’s life are secondary figures, but Pugh brings ferocity to Tatlock (though a scene involving nudity seems as gratuitous as the reference to the Massachusetts senator) and Blunt a steeliness to Kitty that finally comes out in a brilliant moment when she outdoes prosecutor Robb in venom and another when she stares down Teller contemptuously.  Everyone else in the large cast acquit themselves ably, but viewers will have favorites—Krumholtz’s ever-loyal Rabi, Conti’s genial Einstein, Oldman’s straightforwardly dismissive Truman.  That Nolan was able to corral them all into the film is testimony to his own track record.

As to the technical side of things, this reviewer must be more circumspect.  The press screening he attended was beset by difficulties that resulted in the film not being shown at its best, and given what must have been projection problems, it’s hard to assess the cinematography (Hoyte Van Hoytema) and effects (Andrew Jackson and Scott Fisher) fairly, though one must say that the shifts between color and black-and-white sometimes seem overly blatant.  On the other hand, the production design (Ruth De Jong) and costumes (Ellen Mirojnick) look impeccable in period detail, as you might expect of a Nolan project, and Ludwig Göransson’s score has impact without becoming bombastic.  But in the interests of transparency, it must be admitted that the views expressed here might have been more positive had the viewing experience been better.

In any event, there can be no question about the degree of industry and commitment that went into “Oppenheimer,” and it is an impressive film in many respects, a mature reflection on matters of historical importance as well as a story of triumph and tragedy that’s as much about America as about its titular subject.  But it never lands the emotional heart-punch you might expect, remaining chilly, cerebral and curiously remote (like Oppenheimer himself)—a film you respect more than feel.