Shadow Makers isn’t worth your while as a depiction of the Manhattan Project, a portrait of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) or General Leslie R. Groves (Paul Newman), a cautionary tale about the potential misuse of scientific research, or a horror story about the dangers of radiation. Unfortunately, it’s trying to be all of those things.
An imdb reviewer suggests watching Shadow Makers as though it’s one of Lt. Reginald Barclay’s holodeck fantasies, which is actually good advice. I’d only recommend this film to someone who wanted to see Schultz outside of Star Trek: The Next Generation and in a rare leading role. He does, however, seem a bit too much like Barclay in his ‘actor’ mode, knowingly performative, and the similarity makes me wonder how much he actually resembles Oppenheimer.
As well as too many many storylines and ideas, the film has far too many speaking parts. A terribly young John Cusack is supposed to be the emotional centre of the film, but his character is clichéd. Despite having few lines, John C. McGinley steals every scene he’s in, showing a spark of humanity even while delivering exposition. Bonnie Bedelia also gets a couple of nice scenes with Newman that work due to their characters’ begrudging acceptance of each other.
The many scenes of talking heads fail to clearly define the characters’ motivations. Oppenheimer and Groves’ arguments are interminable and constantly miss opportunities to engagingly outline major moral issues. Meanwhile, the film’s action sequences feel like blatant grabs for the audience’s attention.
I hate to say it, but Ennio Morricone’s score is too prevalent, trying to force an emotional reaction to a film that hasn’t earned it. It does work wonderfully, however, in creating the film’s best moment: Oppenheimer’s team makes a breakthrough just as he learns about his lover’s suicide. Never mind that she was poorly introduced, in such a way that leaves us dwelling more upon his wife than believing in this love affair; the moment is still beautiful and sad in that special Morricone way.