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VOD Review: Adventures of a Mathematician

October 1, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Written and directed by German filmmaker Thor Klein, Adventures of a Mathematician is a biopic of Stanislaw Ulam (Philippe Tlokinski), a Polish-Jewish immigrant who worked on the Manhattan Project and was one of the scientists who helped develop the hydrogen bomb.

Klein’s screenplay details how Ulam, who fled Europe and came to America with his younger brother Adam (Mateusz Wieclawek) in the 1930s, went from a career in academia to a job in Los Alamos, New Mexico working on a secret project for the U.S. government, trying to beat the Germans to create the first atomic bombs.

The film also covers his marriage to French student Francoise (Esther Garrel); his friendship with fellow Manhattan Project scientist John von Neumann (Fabian Kociecki), with whom he would go on to help develop important advancements in computer technology; as well as his professional rivalry with Edward Teller (Joel Basman), whose vociferous drive to create nuclear weapons conflicts with Ulam’s more trepidatious moral questioning.

While J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Ryan Gage in a brief role) is the more famous person behind these experiments, Ulam himself is an interesting dramatic figure due to his internal conflicts. Named after his autobiography, Adventures of a Mathematician presents him as neither hero nor villain, but rather as a brilliant but conflicted man tasked with helping create something that could potentially end the world. In its strongest moments, the film grapples with the philosophical question of whether it was right for Ulam to use his intellect to help perfect a weapon that would be used to kill countless people in Japan, while acknowledging that if he didn’t do the calculations, someone else surely would have.

The biggest flaw in Klein’s film, as intriguing as it is at times, is that it feels like somewhat of an underdeveloped template overall. The story keeps jumping forward in time by months and even years, and without the dates onscreen telling us where we are at, we would be completely lost. The film is only about a hundred minutes long, and this bare bones structure keeps it from being an even more complex portrait of its subject. A side plot involving Ulam trying to help his sister and parents flee Poland feels particularly underdeveloped, as does the characterization of his brother Adam.

This is a film that spans historic events such as World War II, the Holocaust, the Trinity bomb tests and the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but they are all kept offscreen. The film instead unfolds mainly as a series of conversations about these topics, which isn’t a bad approach in and of itself. The dialogue is a bit on the nose at times, but other scenes are quite effective, as Klein does a good job of staging some engaging moral conversations around the use of the bombs these men helped create.

Some of the relationships and other figures depicted in the film could have been more fleshed out, and elements of the story feel rushed. But Adventures of a Mathematician still functions as a decent biopic that grapples with some weighty historical topics that continue to have modern relevance. It features a fine performance by Tlokinski, who is complimented by handsome production design that captures the time period well, and some surprisingly good cinematography by Tudor Vladimir Panduru.

As a side note, it was recently announced that Christopher Nolan’s next film will be a biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and knowing this makes Adventures of a Mathematician feel like a good appetizer to what will surely be a fuller meal.

Adventures of a Mathematician is now available on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Vortex Media.

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