Oppenheimer: intriguing character study / legal drama on the use and misuse of power

Christopher Nolan, “Oppenheimer” (2023)

Aside from all the Hollywood fanfare fluff surrounding its release, Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” is actually an intriguing character study and legal drama revolving around two central figures: the US theoretical physicist J Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) himself and Lewis Strauss (played by Robert Downey Jr) who was a founding commissioner of the United States Atomic Energy Commission in 1946 and served from 1953 to 1958 as Chairman of that commission. In the 1950s Strauss was instrumental in bringing down Oppenheimer as an influence on US nuclear energy policy at court hearings initiated by the Commission when Oppenheimer refused voluntarily to give up his security clearance under a contract that was due to expire at the end of June in 1954. The hearings led to Oppenheimer being stripped of his security clearance one day before his contract expired, and his career as a policy consultant on the uses of atomic energy ended. His reputation tarnished as a result, Oppenheimer withdrew from public life and concentrated on writing and giving private lectures and speeches.

Based on the biography “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin, the film follows the proceedings of the 1954 court hearings against Oppenheimer in colour, and the later 1958 US Senate hearings on Lewis Strauss’s nomination for the post of Secretary of Commerce in US President Dwight D Eisenhower’s administration. In the main plot, revolving around the 1954 hearings, the investigations stretch back into Oppenheimer’s past, starting with his postgraduate studies at the University of Cambridge in Britain and continuing from there into his further studies that earned him a doctorate and appointments at the University of California (Berkeley) and the California Institute of Technology. During his time as lecturer and researcher, Oppenheimer is drawn into extra-curricular social activities that link him to members of the American Communist Party and other socially or politically left-wing groups. He meets Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), with whom he has an on-off affair until her death by suicide in 1944, and future wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) in this way. In the early 1940s, Oppenheimer is recruited by US Army General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to head the Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb. Oppenheimer in turn recruits various scientists, among them Edward Teller (Benny Safdie) and David Hill (Rami Malek), to work with him on research and building the bomb in a secret location at Los Alamos in New Mexico.

In the film’s subplot, shot in black and white film, Strauss is attending the Senate hearings on his suitability for the position of Commerce Secretary. During periods of recess in these hearings, Strauss reveals his motivations for getting rid of Oppenheimer to his aide (Alden Ehrenreich) which turn out to be astonishingly personal and quite grubby: Strauss secretly nurses a grudge against Oppenheimer for having publicly embarrassed him once, and for supposedly badmouthing him to German-American physicist Albert Einstein (Tom Conti). During the Senate hearings, David Hill is brought on and he testifies against Strauss’ suitability for the position, accusing him of a lack of integrity and for ending Oppenheimer’s career as a public policy consultant. As a result, Strauss does not get the nomination and his career in government ends there.

The film is best seen as a portrayal of how individuals like Oppenheimer and Strauss pursued fame and fortune and ultimately power, and how they used the power that was given them to bring down those who opposed them. The film glosses over Oppenheimer’s denunciation of various people for their supposed pro-Communist sympathies and activities at the 1954 hearings and portrays him mainly as a victim of Strauss’s machinations. Though emphasis is placed on the ethical dilemmas that Oppenheimer finds himself in as a result of decisions he makes and follows through on, the film does not really draw them out in Cillian Murphy’s understated portrayal of the physicist. Murphy does excellent work as Oppenheimer but Downey all but steals the film from him in his depiction of Strauss’s resentment and vindictive behaviour. The rest of the cast provides solid support with excellent and sometimes chilling performances from Safdie’s Teller, who casts Oppenheimer in a very negative light during the security clearance hearings, and Gary Oldman’s hilarious bulldozing of US President Harry Truman.

Hollywood’s favoured use of flashbacks as a narrative device, combined with intertwining the plot and subplot together, perhaps makes for confusing viewing for most people – to be honest, I myself found the film fairly straightforward – and the film’s playing time of three hours may be a test of attention and endurance for viewers not familiar with US politics and the history of the development of the atomic bomb. Very little attention is given to the suffering of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the atomic bombs are dropped on those two cities. There is some mention of the anger Oppenheimer and his associates feel when they discover that Truman ordered the bombs to be dropped despite knowing that the Japanese had actually tried to surrender earlier in 1946 and that the bombs may have been dropped to intimidate the Soviets who were moving into China at the time, but this moment passes quickly enough that audiences may miss it.

The acting may be excellent and the cinematography is often beautiful but the mixed storylines deliver a message about the use and misuse of power – whether this power is the power over the manipulation of atoms into a force that can annihilate entire cities and nations, or the power over people’s careers, even their lives – that is so superficial and unoriginal as to be banal. The film presents Oppenheimer and his fellow colleagues as mixed-up folks bogged down in ethical puzzles and minefields of their own making and leaves them at that, without stressing how much or how deeply they felt about the situations they find themselves in.