Oppenheimer review: A “magnificent” story of a tragic American genius

The film doesn’t belabour or especially try to explain the science of the bomb, even as research physicists cluster around Oppenheimer to debate it. At Los Alamos, the tension ramps up as the story heads toward the inevitable test in the vast desert. There is a howling rainstorm the night before Trinity. When the explosion happens – Oppenheimer in a shack some distance away, others lying flat on the ground, shielding their eyes – the fire seems to roar at us from the screen, followed by sudden silence as the soundtrack cuts out. That jolting, immersive scene alone justifies shooting in the Imax format Nolan loves so much (and that shows every line and pore in the actors’ faces).

The physicist Edward Teller (Benny Safdie) charges Oppenheimer with being more politician than physicist. Kitty tells him he plays the martyr. Nolan shows a man who naively believed he could speak honestly, urging President Truman to avoid a nuclear arms race. He also believed that it was necessary to drop the bomb on Hiroshima because, as he says, “Once it’s used, a nuclear war becomes unthinkable”. But he does think about it. Just after Hiroshima we see more images from his mind, including a photo-negative image of a young woman with her skin peeling off. As this inspired film suggests, Oppenheimer’s greatest tragedy was that he wasn’t able to save the future from his own invention.


Oppenheimer is released internationally from 21 July.

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