In Christoper Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” Robert Downey Jr. plays Lewis Strauss, the man who wanted to topple J.Robert Oppenheimer from glory for good.
Strauss, Oppenheimer’s real life nemesis helped to end Oppenheimer’s career in government. The pair’s most significant disagreement? Whether or not to construct the most powerful weapon known to man — the hydrogen bomb.
Strauss was born in 1896 in West Virginia to Jewish emigrant parents, according to reporting from Esquire. He gave up his dream of becoming a physicist to help his father run his business. Later, during WWI, he worked as Herbert Hoover’s assistant. He became a successful investment banker after the war and helped finance projects such as the Polaroid Camera. In WWII, he served in the navy.
Strauss’ humble beginnings are referenced by Cillian Murphy in “Oppenheimer” when Murphy pokes at the fictional Strauss by asking if he is a “lowly shoe salesman.”
In 1946, after Strauss worked in weapon production with the US Navy, then-president Harry Truman appointed him to the Atomic Energy Commission, where he strongly advocated for developing thermonuclear weapons like hydrogen bombs. Thermodynamic bombs can be as many as hundreds or even thousands of times as strong as an atomic bomb, according to Brittanica.
The debate over the construction of thermodynamic weapons put Oppenheimer at odds with Strauss. Oppenheimer wanted the development of atomic weapons to be stopped and the data on US weapons shared with the public. Strauss, however, wanted a more powerful weapon and believed the US should not share its weapons developments.
Following his appointment by President Eisenhower as the chair of the AEC in 1953, Strauss continued to advocate for the development and testing of the H-bomb. Strauss also started his campaign to expose Oppenheimer as a communist.
Strauss was not the only one who raised concerns about Oppenheimer’s communist affiliations — during the Manhattan Project, staff and leaders also questioned Oppenheimer’s loyalties over the years, as the famed scientist had a long history of associating with communists, including an affair with psychiatrist Jean Tatlock, played by Florence Pugh in Nolan’s film.
Some believed that Strauss’ motivation to take down Oppenheimer was related to long-held resentment after Oppenheimer publicly humiliated him during a 1949 hearing on selling radioisotopes to foreign nations. However, Strauss was the first to take serious action about Oppenheimer’s Communist accusations.
The film reenacts another instance when Strauss feels Oppenheimer slighted him — as Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein, played by Tom Conti, speak by a pond after Strauss offers Oppenheimer a prestigious job at the Institute for Advanced Study. Einstein ignores Strauss (it is later revealed why), but this further angers Strauss, who believes Oppenheimer is turning the scientific community against him.
In 1953, the AEC chairman asked then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to begin surveilling Oppenheimer. The FBI built a case against him by illegally wiretapping Oppenheimer’s phone. Strauss also began a separate security proceeding with the AEC over Oppenheimer’s alleged Communist ties, which resulted in his security clearances being suspended.
Strauss’ requests — as well as a letter sent to Hoover by the former Executive Director of Congress’s Joint Atomic Energy Committee William Liscum Borden, who said he had compiled evidence that Oppenheimer was “an agent of the Soviet Union” — resulted in Oppenheimer’s high-level government security clearance being suspended. Nolan chose David Dastmalchian, a regular actor to portray Borden.
The physicist faced a Red Scare-era Senate panel that decided although he was loyal to the US, he was involved with too many communist activities. The physicist’s security clearance was permanently removed.
As for Strauss, the chairman’s term at the AEC ran its course, and his campaign against Oppenheimer eventually came to bite him in the back — during his appointment as Secretary of Commerce under Eisenhower, Strauss became so unpopular among Senate Democrats that his confirmation did not go through, and his time in government ended.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Downey said director Christopher Nolan wanted him to “transform” into someone “subtle and plotting, who doesn’t have any punchlines, who’s only charming when he’s trying to manipulate or undermine” to play Strauss.
“Nolan had said he was likening it a bit to ‘Amadeus,’ where there’s a Mozart and that’s not you. Downey told Vanity Fair, “‘Sometimes, you are Mozart. Usually, you are Mozart. This time, you are Salieri.’ He was challenging my entire career path and telling me to stop using the things that had worked for me. Find new resources.'”
“Oppenheimer” opened this week to rave reviews, scoring a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and grossing $80. 5 million in the US and Canada on its opening weekend against its estimated $100 million cost, according to reporting from The New York Times.
Inspired by the 2005 book, “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” the film stars Cillian Murphy as its titular character and Emily Blunt as his wife, Kitty.