The film “Oppenheimer” is a rare insight into the mind of a brilliant but conflicted physicist caught at the crossroads of history.  Forced into a war for national survival with intractable enemies thought to be developing weapons with unbelievable increases in destructive power, a normally unimaginative bureaucracy recognized the need for his unique talents.   And so with fortuitous serendipity, he was appointed to lead the most costly and consequential wartime project yet conceived.

Oppenheimer could appreciate the issues inherent in multidisciplinary problems, which others found intractable, with uncanny speed and clarity.  In his professional career, this was something of a liability leading him to concentrate on theoretical breakthroughs with an aversion to tedious calculations and mundane laboratory experiments.   But perhaps because of this, he had an overarching ambition to dominate the direction of difficult research projects.

For those lacking his quickness of mind, many mistakenly assumed him to be self-aggrandizing and even belittling.   But for others with commensurate intellects, albeit with often radically different motivations, his influence was hugely motivating, inspiring, catalytic, and essential.

No less essential, was his ability to recruit free thinking, rebellious, unconventional, and anti-authoritarian talent at the highest scientific levels and across many specializations.  That this was due as much to his scientific stature as the exigencies of the times did not diminish its importance.   Unfortunately, a few prima donnas found it difficult to concentrate on solving issues at hand rather than on who would take credit.  These included Edward Teller, among others, who eschewed personal loyalty and patriotic allegiance to pursue personal goals to the detriment of group success.  These painful depictions highlighted the immense difficulties of guiding such an elite team.

In a telling scene, Oppenheimer tries to convince Teller to return to work on the atomic bomb by offering to help him with calculations on the H-bomb as a temporary aside.  But Teller didn’t want research assistance and loss of credit but rather wanted Oppenheimer’s job and the resources at his command and of course, all the fame.

Many supporting roles in an excellent cast contributed to the emotional richness of the drama.

These included a loyal wife who basked in his acclaim, brilliantly defended his interests against skillful and mean-spirited lawyers with the customary lack of moral scruples, and agonized over his reluctance to fight aggressively to the point of trading dirty tricks in self-defense.

General Groves provided institutional stability and accountability to American government in spending vast sums of money.  Rather than the stereotypical Hollywood military bore, Matt Damon presented a competent even insightful human being, although always with the required practical bent.

Earnest Lawrence had been considered to lead the project perhaps because of his extensive administrative experience in building breakthrough atom smashers.  But Groves correctly saw that Lawrence was too accomplished, head-strong, and risk adverse to do the impossible in record time.  For that he needed someone more mercurial and manageable and ambitious enough to succeed at all costs, in short Oppenheimer.

Einstein, despite an early Nobel Prize winning contribution to quantum mechanics sufficient to elevate it into mainstream science, could not accept the violations of common sense implicit in the equations.  Because of this, he had been ridiculed as naively outdated by the younger generation of physicists notably Oppenheimer himself.  Oppenheimer was undoubtedly more brilliant than Einstein but lacked his stubborn unconventional single-minded focus.  In a cruel and ironic episode, Einstein predicted his misfortune would also befall Oppenheimer because of inevitable scruples and ambivalence over the consequences of his contributions.

President Truman displayed the crudity of thought of career politicians whose entire ambition is political popularity to the detriment of innovations in world order when faced with revolutionary realities they can barely understand and appreciate not at all.  The casual dismissal of Oppenheimer’s aversion to nuclear weapons and his scientific certainty of the dangers of an arms race was the clearest depiction of the failure of American political institutions yet presented.  The fear was that the next war might extinguish all life on earth and not just a large fraction of the population as in WWII.

Most disgusting were petty bureaucrats, one in particular, whose sole talent was experience in political intrigue and pursuing petty grievances.  The sheer arrogance, viciousness, and blinding hatred inherent in Washington politics without a shred of common decency were stunning.

In the economic chaos of the times, it was not surprising that unconventional philosophies gained credence despite their revolutionary aspects.   Nor was it unreasonable that the vast majority of those employed at Los Alamos would not be grated security clearances in peacetime.  In this light, one can hardly blame Oppenheimer for employing Klaus Fuchs who later spied for the Russians.  Indeed, at the security clearance inquiry, Groves quipped that the new McCarthy-era guidelines would not only disqualify Oppenheimer but in fact nearly everyone else.  They elite team had outlived its usefulness and the world had moved on.

Surprisingly, the film only alluded to historical and scientific events in passing.  Rather it was a deeply personal story.   Unfortunately, the film makers found this genre boring enough to need gratuitous and explicit sex acts inserted at random out-of-context moments. Since these only serve to satiate prurient interests rather than to advance the plot, many might find these distracting if not stupidly distasteful.

The alternating use of black and white to emphasize historical events interspersed with color for contemporary story action was well done.  On the other hand, occasional dream-like sequences intended perhaps to depict Oppenheimer’s unsettled emotional states and mental conflicts were offsetting, but perhaps as intended even if somewhat inept.   All in all one might wish the film editing had told a cleaner story.

Engaged in a struggle for national survival against a brutal and unyielding enemy and considering the enormous costs already paid, the film fortunately did not suggest that wartime use of the bomb was avoidable.  The tragedy was not so much with choices Oppenheimer was forced to make but rather with human societal failures that presented such dire situations. 

Although the presentation is not what one might expect, it is nevertheless a film worth viewing on a difficult and controversial subject.