The surprising thing about Roland Joffe’s movie about the building of the first atomic bomb is that, for all its unevenness as filmmaking—with a fragmented story line, unconvincing period dialogue, and a soupy Ennio Morricone score that would be more appropriate in a Sergio Leone epic—it still comes across as an unusually intelligent and provocative treatment of its subject. Concentrating on the power relationship between General Leslie R. Groves (Paul Newman in a carefully crafted performance) and J. Robert Oppenheimer (newcomer Dwight Schultz), with plenty of time left for Oppenheimer’s feisty wife Kitty (Bonnie Bedelia), the romance between a young scientist (John Cusack) and a nurse (Laura Dern), and various other subplots, the movie starts off as scattered, and never fully recovers from the splintered interests of Joffe and Bruce Robinson’s ambitious script. (The corny handling of Oppenheimer’s relationship to his communist mistress, played by Natasha Richardson, is especially unfortunate.) But the film steadily grows in complexity and power, assisted by Vilmos Zsigmond’s superb cinematography, and winds up saying something persuasive and troubling about the network of forces that ultimately produced the bomb—a vast improvement on such earlier commercial treatments as The Beginning or the End (1947), which gave us Brian Donlevy as Groves and Hume Cronyn as Oppenheimer, without a trace of irony about either character. Joffe may remain as variable a filmmaker as ever, but this time, at least, he gives one something really solid to think about.