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Oppenheimer (DVD Review)

17 Aug, 2008 By: John Latchem

Prebook 8/19/08; Street 9/23/08
BBC Video
$39.98 three-DVD set
Not rated.
Stars Sam Waterston, Jana Sheldon, Kate Harper, Garrick Hagon, David Suchet.

The name J. Robert Oppenheimer has been etched in history as the lead scientist in the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. As with most historical figures, the impact of his accomplishments easily overwhelms the details of his personal life.

Oppenheimer, a seven-part BBC miniseries from 1980, gives some context to his role in helping the United States and its allies end World War II. The program starts with Oppenheimer's days as a theorist and professor at U.C. Berkeley in the 1930s and guides viewers through development of the bomb and its aftermath, including how his association with the American Communist Party threatened his career.

The miniseries also explores the great emotional toll Oppenheimer's work had on his wife, Kitty (Sheldon). In one scene that demonstrates the evolution of societal sensibilities, a pregnant, stressed-out Kitty is shown both smoking and drinking, with nary a word of protest.

Oppenheimer is most interesting when dealing with the procedural aspects of creating the bomb. It's a little scary watching the giddiness of some of the scientists over the prospect of creating these powerful weapons, excited by the challenge while pushing aside thoughts of the consequences. But the issues at the time presented a great ethical dilemma: Use the bomb to end the war as quickly as possible, or see hundreds of thousands of Americans troops die invading Japan.

The real spark of the Manhattan Project is depicted as a partnership between Oppenheimer and the project's military commander, Gen. Graves, whose no-nonsense approach keeps the scientists on task.

The always-dependable Waterston is excellent in the title role, mixing charm and compassion to present a man conflicted by the contrasts in his personal and professional lives, but understanding the necessity of his job.

The production values vary. Scenes filmed on location are shot on film, while video is used to depict most scenes shot on sets. The contrast in styles is a jarring distraction overcome only by the strength of the material.

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