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Shadow Makers Review

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Biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Schultz) and General Leslie Groves (Newman), the scientist and the militarian put in charge of America's nuclear testing program in the early 1940's.

★★★★★

Released in America as Fat Man And Little Boy, Roland Joffe’s new film undergoes a name change, having evidently caused a few perception problems with American audiences who, with a title like that and with Newman’s name at the top, assumed it was some kind of stylish comedy.

Not exactly. In fact, Fat Man and Little Boy were the names given to the two atom bombs J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team of scientists developed secretly from scratch in just two years at Los Alamos in New Mexico towards the end of World War II. And while there are a few dark comic touches, Shadow Makers is the kind of considered, sober study you would expect from the director of The Killing Fields and The Mission.

Newman plays General Groves, who’s charged with assembling a scientific team to construct an atom bomb before the Nazis beat them to it (since Groves built the Pentagon, this ought to be a breeze). His attitude is simple: the project is all about logistics and discipline: “We can give this country the biggest stick in the playground,” he observes at one point to an admiring aide. Groves pins his hopes on Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz, excellent in his first film role), a brilliant young Berkeley lecturer with a history of supporting “suspect” causes. As Groves goads Oppenheimer to push his men harder and faster, the relationship between the two becomes the centrepiece of the film.*The production team, including Bruce Robinson (Withnail And I, How To Get Ahead In Advertising), spent two years researching their subject, resulting in a script which oozes authenticity. The attention to detail is immaculate (there were reputedly 5,000 people at Los Alamos before they even put street lights in, so secret was the project), and the supporting performances (notably John Cusack as the narrator and Laura Dern as the nurse he falls in love with) are entirely convincing. Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography is gorgeous — particularly the shots of the two bombs suspended in the desert night, swinging eerily back and forth.

It is, however, in the relationship between Groves and “Oppy” that this film really comes alive. Best known for his appearances as H.M. Murdock in The A -Team, and a brave choice by Joffe, Schultz does a fine job with the scarily cerebral Oppenheimer, who’s said to have read The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire on a single train trip from New York to Los Angeles. Still, Newman still walks away with it as his brisk, wash’ n’ wear Mephistopheles irrevocably wears down Schultz’s touchy and determined Faust.

In the end though, and despite the edgy central conflict, the terror is somehow missing from Shadow Makers. The few times Joffe does face down the bomb (Cusack’s radiation sickness, Oppy’s glee at the successful test) he’s in genuine danger of slipping into clumsy horror. Shadow Makers is certainly worth seeing for its care, authenticity and the central performances, but the suggestions of collective guilt and responsibility, and the pushing of humanity towards the brink are just too coy to ever be really effective.

Shadow Makers just doesn’t look into the nuclear abyss as much as it should, focussing a little unapologetically on the relationships on the peripheries of the test site.

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