Though its measured pace and dialogue-heavy approach could turn off audiences seeking a more thrilling cinema experience, the European-produced Adventures of a Mathematician is an engaging and deeply human portrait of a fascinating moment in history.
Written and directed by Thor Klein (Lost Place), Adventures of a Mathematician is the story of Stanislaw “Stan” Ulam (Philippe Tlokinski), a young mathematician who immigrated to the United States from Poland in the 1930’s and worked on the infamous Manhattan Project, helping to build the first nuclear bomb. Based on Ulam’s autobiography, the film begins during Ulam’s tenure at Harvard and explores his reasons for moving to the U.S. government’s isolated Los Almos lab to work on the bomb. It also spans major events of the period, including the end of the war in Europe and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A major theme throughout is Ulman’s philosophical objections to the weapons he is building, and the internal conflict between work and family.
Previous depictions of the Manhattan Project on the silver screen, such as 1989’s Fat Man and Little Boy starring Paul Newman as General Groves and Dwight Schultz as Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, have focused on the project’s better-known personalities. Refreshingly, Oppenheimer is merely a supporting part in Klein’s drama. Adventures of a Mathematician instead focuses on the smaller players and the intense relationships and personal challenges that stemmed from being involved in a top-secret government laboratory.
While the philosophical and moral debates between Ulam and his fellow scientists are interesting, they do tread well-worn territory. Audiences who are familiar with the Manhattan Project or have even a passing interest in the subject will find these exchanges predictable, at best. Aesthetically, Adventures of a Mathematician is also rather one-note, and the sepia colour palette is, well, a bit boring. Despite a runtime under two hours, the film drags a bit toward the end of the second act and manages to feel much longer than it is. These issues aside, Adventures of a Mathematician examines the philosophical and moral questions surrounding the development of the world’s first nuclear weapon while simultaneously emphasizing the personal investment and experiences of the scientists themselves, many of whom were, like Ulam, immigrants from Eastern Europe. For these scientists, participation in the Manhattan Project was impacted by concern for family and friends back in Europe.
No matter how one feels individually about nuclear weapons or the Manhattan Project, it’s impossible to deny that it makes for compelling source material. The stakes don’t get much higher than a group of people working on a weapon they know could kill millions – and completely alter the world as they know it.
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