Matt Damon talks his "fascinating" Oppenheimer general: "He didn't reflect on it at all"

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

The latest feature from director Christopher Nolan once again dives into the world of science, following in the footsteps of the likes of his emotional odyssey Interstellar and action spectacle Tenet. It's something the filmmaker has long been fascinated by, so it's no surprise that J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, would be a subject matter he'd explore.

Oppenheimer therefore thrusts us into the world of the physicist, as we explore the events of his life and the crucial role he played in the development of nuclear weapons. It therefore wasn't a shock to me to find myself sat behind none other than Professor Brian Cox at the press screening, who has since tweeted that he believes the film to be a "masterpiece". However, those of us who don't have scientific minds (like myself who lasted a week on A-level physics) shouldn't fear as Nolan ensures, as ever, that it is all accessible.

The military and whole ethos that he’s used to, it’s just out of the window

Key to this is the character of General Leslie Groves, portrayed by the always fantastic Matt Damon, who plays a crucial role in bringing the audience into this story. Just like us, Groves is propelled into this complicated world of science when he is given the job of managing the Manhattan Project - it's an environment he both isn't used to and doesn't quite understand.

Speaking to GamesRadar+, Damon explained to us that he saw this shift as being quite a shock to Groves: "I think he felt like a kindergarten teacher for most of it, the scientists were just all over the place but he needed them. He couldn’t achieve what he needed to without them. But what’s fun about it is that they didn’t observe the chain of command. The military and whole ethos that he’s used to, it’s just out of the window with these guys so there was a place for Chris [Nolan] to inject a little bit of levity whilst being completely true to history."

matt damon oppenheimer

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

As Damon states there, Groves also brings "levity" to the three hour haunting epic that questions whether the actions of these men and women destroyed the world. The laughs then come through what can only be described as gallows humour, but Damon delivers some witty one-liners all the same.

It helps round out a character that would otherwise not have any redeeming qualities, especially since he appears to have no feelings of guilt over the consequences of delivering to the U.S. government the atomic bomb. Unlike Oppenheimer who is haunted by the results of his actions, once the Trinity test has been completed Groves simply moves forward as his job there is done. 

We are presented with one of the most important moral questions of the century and he doesn’t doubt his decisions at all

For Damon, this was the draw of the character: "That’s what I found so fascinating about him. I don’t think that he reflected on it at all which is an amazing thing. When you think about it, we are presented with one of the most important moral questions of the century and he doesn’t doubt his decisions at all. But I think I also empathised with his position. It’s like, he was not wrong to want secrecy and compartmentalization when you are talking about the fate of the entire human race, you don’t want those secrets getting out, so I understood how he felt. I thought that was really interesting to play in the sense that, he was very sure of himself. Nobody liked him, he didn’t care at all. Literally all these people and scientists wrote books and everybody talked about how much they hated this guy. But he and Oppenheimer just had a great dynamic."

This was the point where his co-star Emily Blunt, who was paired with the actor for the interview, burst into giggles, simply at the thought of the wonderful Damon playing someone so hated. Whilst he says that "nobody liked" Groves, I admit that I found him rather likable at times, with Blunt nodding in agreement, then summing it up perfectly to a confused Damon: “It’s because you are playing him! You are so funny, charismatic, and as warm as you are cold with him, it’s really wonderful.” 

And well, she's god damn right!

Oppenheimer releases in UK and US cinemas on July 21. For more on the film, you can read our interviews with director Christopher Nolan and actor Emily Blunt, and listen to the latest episode of the Inside Total Film podcast for our chat with Cillian Murphy and more Nolan.

In the meantime, check out our guide to the rest of the most exciting upcoming movies in 2023 and beyond.

Emily Murray
Entertainment Editor

As Entertainment Editor at GamesRadar, I oversee all the online content for Total Film and SFX magazine. Previously I've worked for the BBC, Zavvi, UNILAD, Yahoo, Digital Spy and more.