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Nolan's thriller 'Oppenheimer' is a monument to science and the arrogance of genius


In his last film, "Tenet," director Christopher Nolan told a story that shredded the laws of physics. His new biographical thriller "Oppenheimer" is about one of the makers of those laws, theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Critic Bob Mondello says the film is a monument to science and to the arrogance of genius.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: J. Robert Oppenheimer is often referred to as the father of the atomic bomb. It was not, from all accounts, an easy birth.


CILLIAN MURPHY: (As J. Robert Oppenheimer) I don't know if we can be trusted with such a weapon, but I know the Nazis can't.

MONDELLO: The film introduces us to Oppenheimer, the charismatic scientist heading the Manhattan Project in the mid-1940s but also in time-bending sequences that pulse and shudder, sometimes in black and white, to Oppenheimer, the troubled student, Oppenheimer, the Jewish outsider, Oppenheimer, the lover, the husband, the idealist who assumes he can save humanity and the hotshot for whom the creation of a weapon that could destroy humanity is, at first, just a matter of logistics.


MURPHY: (As J. Robert Oppenheimer) All America's industrial might and scientific innovation connected here.

MONDELLO: Los Alamos...


MURPHY: (As J. Robert Oppenheimer) A secret laboratory.

MONDELLO: ...New Mexico.


MURPHY: (As J. Robert Oppenheimer) Keep everyone there until it's done. Build a town. Build it fast. If we don't let scientists bring their families, we'll never get the best.

MONDELLO: Placed in charge at Los Alamos despite official concerns about his possible communist sympathies, Oppenheimer is the glue that holds his scientific team together. And actor Cillian Murphy, who plays him with feverish intensity, is the glue that binds the film's narrative threads, his thoughts punctuated by writer-director Christopher Nolan with fiery particles and sinuous wave forms, as if his very ideas are skittering across the screen.


MURPHY: (As J. Robert Oppenheimer) To smash into other nuclei - criticality, a point of no return, massive explosive force. But this time, the chain reaction doesn't stop.

DANNY DEFERRARI: (As Enrico Fermi) It would ignite the atmosphere.

MONDELLO: This notion is what first sparked Nolan's interest in the story, the idea that scientists unsure whether a nuclear explosion might set the atmosphere on fire went ahead with the explosion. He lets Matt Damon's General Groves ponder that on the eve of the test they'd code-named Trinity.


MATT DAMON: (As Leslie Groves) Are we saying there's a chance that when we push that button, we destroy the world?

MURPHY: (As J. Robert Oppenheimer) Nothing in our research over three years supports that conclusion, except it's the most remote possibility.

DAMON: (As Leslie Groves) How remote?

MURPHY: (As J. Robert Oppenheimer) Chances are near zero.

DAMON: (As Leslie Groves) Near zero?

MURPHY: (As J. Robert Oppenheimer) What do you want for the theory alone?

DAMON: (As Leslie Groves) Zero would be nice.

MONDELLO: That their big bang - and Nolan makes it very big, shooting with IMAX 65mm cameras - did not ignite the atmosphere doesn't make it any less horrifying. The film doesn't show the subsequent bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the weight of those world-altering tragedies sits like a shroud on its final third, which is consumed with Oppenheimer's tortured conscience and his fevered attempts to fend off reputational attacks and spark interest in disarmament talks as the world rushes headlong into the nuclear age.


ROBERT DOWNEY JR: (As Lewis Strauss) What do we know?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) One of our B-29s over the North Pacific has detected radiation.

MURPHY: (As J. Robert Oppenheimer) It's an atomic test.

DOWNEY: (As Lewis Strauss) The Russians have a bomb. We're supposed to be years ahead of them but (inaudible). What were you guys doing at Los Alamos? Wasn't security tight?

MONDELLO: A prickly atomic energy commissioner played by Robert Downey Jr. is among the many familiar faces Nolan enlists to bring historical figures to life. Emily Blunt, Kenneth Branagh, Rami Malek, Florence Pugh, Casey Affleck, Gary Oldman - each a vivid flash of lightning in a film that burns nuclear with the anguish of hindsight.


MURPHY: (As J. Robert Oppenheimer) They won't fear it until they understand it. And they won't understand it until they've used it.

MONDELLO: Well, we've used it. Will we ever understand it? Maybe a little in Nolan's majestic "Oppenheimer." I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.