It is 1938, we are sitting in J. Robert Oppenheimer's physics class at Berkeley, and even the professor cannot come up with a solution to the problem he has scratched onto the blackboard. So he says to the class, "All right. Okay. Nobody knows. Now it's exciting."
"Oppenheimer," the seven-part series on the life and work of a brilliant and troubled figure, might have been called "The Secret World of Intellectuals." Now and then it seems to have latched onto a silvery insight or two about the kinds of people who put together the first atomic bomb, about academics--misguidable souls that they are--generally, and about the mercurial, frightening nature of human genius.
But the 2-year-old BBC series, premiering tonight at 9 on Channels 26 and 32, also has a peculiar air of evasion about it, and the script by Peter Prince is concerned to an infuriating degree with Oppenheimer's sex life, never making it terribly clear what significance there is in the fact that, according to Prince, he had pretty dreadful taste in women.
In part I, Oppenheimer is bullied and abused by Kate Harper as Jean Tatlock, depicted here as neurotic, shrewish and a Commie to boot, and you wish someone would boot her. She is subsequently and awkwardly dumped for Jana Sheldon as Kitty, whom Oppenheimer later marries, and who is portrayed as possessive and manipulative. At the conclusion of the opening episode, Kitty optimistically tells Oppie that he could make a killing out of World War II.
How well-documented, and how relevant, is this kind of squirm-inducing material? Near the beginning of part II, Oppenheimer leaves a discussion of the atomic bomb for a glum little nooner with his mistress. Then it's back to the office for more work on Uranium 235. Throughout the episodes screened (one, two and six selected as representative), the mixture of reportage on public matters and gossip about private ones is abruptly and discomfortingly brought off.
Do even the lofty, noble and so frequently overpraised producers of British television think people won't watch anything that doesn't have a bedroom scene in it every now and then?
As Oppenheimer, American actor Sam Waterston certainly has the gauntness down pat. But he plays Oppenheimer as less assertive (and less egocentric) than many accounts have him, and all the makeup in the world can't really give him Oppenheimer's haunting and haunted extraterrestrial eyes. The first chapter is primarily devoted to the days at Berkeley, when Oppenheimer was knee-deep in Communists (including his brother Frank, played with mannered hesitation by Garrick Hagon), and dinner-table chitchat at a restaurant revolved around such topics as neutrons and fission.
The series will follow Oppenheimer through Los Alamos, the successful test of the bomb, and Oppenheimer's persecuted days in the '50s, when he became a scapegoat for House Un-American Activities Committee witch-hunters and, according to the script, had his security clearance taken away as a convenient means of discrediting his opposition to development of the hydrogen bomb.
Fortunately for Oppenheimer, and unfortunately for this series, the memory of a superior, and nonfictional, work about him is still vivid: Jon Else's brilliant film "The Day After Trinity," which has at this point won nearly every award in the book (most recently, a Peabody) and which pieced together the era and the Oppenheimer mystique from the eyewitness observations of friends, acquaintances and surviving brother Frank (Warren Beatty may have been inspired by Else's film when he did the "eyewitness" portions of "Reds").
Then, too, the British do not appear particularly well-qualified for this task. Their depiction of Cold War America is facile and thin, and it's galling to have this BBC effort taking up seven full weeks of the so-called "American Playhouse" series. Apparently, "Oppenheimer" didn't qualify as a "masterpiece" or a "great performance" so it was shoehorned into this inappropriate corner of the PBS schedule.
The dramatization is also marred by a surprising amount of dreadful acting. Part II includes a scene between two Pentagon generals (one of them Leslie Groves, who supervised the Manhattan Project) that plays like something out of a '50s monster movie; you'd think they were talking about shooting down Rodan or Mothra. Executive producer Peter Goodchild, who has also written a book, "J. Robert Oppenheimer, Shatterer of Worlds," is obviously sincere in his zeal for the subject, but "Oppenheimer" is undone by the peculiar dramatic choices it makes, a seeming misogynic streak, and an aura of artifice that hangs over it like a radioactive cloud.