by Rob DiCristino
In the simplest terms, nuclear fission occurs when atomic materials collide at very high speeds. This collision splits those materials apart, producing a great deal of energy. In a nuclear power plant, that energy is expended slowly and harnessed to produce electricity. In a bomb — such as the one developed by J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Manhattan Project during World War II — it is expended quickly, at higher temperatures, thus causing more collisions. More reactions. Over and over. For a time, some physicists feared that these chain reactions would be so intense that they would never end; exploded atoms would react with those in the atmosphere, eating away at the air and water around us and eventually making the planet uninhabitable. “Near zero,” Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) assures his military handler (Matt Damon as Gen. Leslie Groves) when asked about this probability. “Zero would be nice,” Groves responds. But Oppenheimer can’t assure him of that. Theory can only take you so far. One way or another, you have to put it to the test.
That’s to say nothing of the cacophony inside of Oppenheimer himself, the contradictory impulses that threatened his marriage (to Emily Blunt’s Kitty), made him the target of intelligence officers like Boris Pash (Casey Affleck) and David Hill (Rami Malek), and subjected him to inquiries by a government panel (led by Tony Goldwyn’s Gordon Gray) empowered to investigate his allegiances. Nolan’s film — based on the bestseller American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin — is less an action-packed tale of nuclear explosivity than it is a chronicle of Oppenheimer’s efforts to temper and align these impulses, to gamble his humanity against world-changing scientific breakthroughs. Nolan weaves more than forty years of plot threads together with his signature elliptical flair and uses new IMAX black and white photography to blur subjective lines between feuding parties. The result is a symphony of close-ups and shallow focus, a claustrophobic thriller more akin to his own Memento than a traditional historical epic.
Oppenheimer hits theaters on Friday, July 21st.