Sam Waterston convinces as the conflicted creator of the atom bomb in this classic slow-burning drama.


J. Robert Oppenheimer – known as ‘Oppie’ to friends and associates – was the brilliant physicist who led the US government’s Manhattan Project to design and build the bombs that would obliterate Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Leading his team from the months leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II, Oppenheimer was under constant FBI and military surveillance due to his past Communist sympathies. As the development programme reaches fruition, he is almost paralysed by an ambivalence bordering on open hostility to the use of the bomb.

Hovering around Waterston’s Oppie are David Suchet as Edward Teller, an irritable and vain right-wing hawk; Jana Shelden as Oppenheimer’s temperamental and fragile wife Kitty; Matthew Guinness’s German-born theorist Hans Bethe; Manning Redwood’s Hershey bar munching taskmaster General Leslie Groves; and an interchangeable mob of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI goons in black Buicks and dark glasses, watching and listening in. As the scientists and the military survey the unprecedented horrors wrought on the Japanese cities, Groves admire the devastation with victorious pride, while Oppie is dumbstruck and has to leave the room.

The series culminates in the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission hearing of 1954, in which Oppenheimer is stripped of his security clearance as a risk to national security. True to the observational nature of the drama, his shaming is dealt with even-handedly. Undoubtedly a victim of the McCarthyist agenda that toppled many great men, Oppie is also shown to have had few qualms about betraying left-leaning colleagues including his own brother.

The recipient of three BAFTAs including Best Drama Series, and nominated for two Emmys and a Golden Globe, this is a gripping study of a brilliant mind and a tortured soul, casting penetrating doubts on the morality of blind patriotism and state-sponsored mass destruction.

Oppenheimer has been adapted for the stage by the RSC and the critically acclaimed production is running at the Vaudeville Theatre, London.

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