The Real TIME Magazine Covers Featured in Oppenheimer

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This post contains spoilers for Oppenheimer.

TIME makes a cameo in the summer blockbuster Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s movie about brainiac theoretical physicist and atomic bomb architect J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Two TIME magazine covers show up in the movie: one featuring Oppenheimer, and the other depicting his nemesis Lewis Strauss, head of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. While based on real issues of the magazine, the cover photos in the film are altered to look like the actors Cillian Murphy (Oppenheimer) and Robert Downey Jr. (Strauss).

November 8, 1948 TIME cover
June 15, 1959 TIME cover

The first TIME magazine that appears in the movie is the Nov. 8, 1948, issue, featuring a portrait of Oppenheimer by the artist Ernest Hamlin Baker. The cover story details the scientist’s rise to fame, and includes details about Oppenheimer’s—or “Oppie’s”—eccentricities:

Oppie would corral a handful of his favorite students, take them in his big, fast car for a leisurely feast at such San Francisco restaurants as Amelio’s and Jack’s. Good conversation was cheap, but dinner was always expensive; it was Oppie who picked up the checks.

A more fluent conversationalist than in the old, shy days, the handsome and unattached Oppie was much sought after as a guest at cocktail and dinner parties. He gave bachelor dinners, serving his own expertly cooked hot Mexican dishes, and mixed a mean Martini with laboratory precision.

After a late party, he would frequently sit up most of the night working on some involved problem (“How much sleep do I need? This is like what Mrs. Lenin said about the meat: ‘When we are hungry, we cook it five minutes; when we are not hungry, two hours'”). Once, on a date with a coed in the Berkeley hills, he felt the urge to solve a problem in physics, got out of the car to pace up & down, wandered off into the night. On another occasion, emboldened by his own Martinis, Oppenheimer decided to telephone a girl he “knew,” found that he could not remember her name; all he recalled was that her address was a power of seven.

The second issue of TIME in the movie appears at a key plot point, during the feud between Oppenheimer and Strauss, who stripped Oppenheimer of his security clearance. During his confirmation hearings for Commerce Secretary in 1959, Strauss is depicted in the movie as bandying about TIME’s June 15, 1959, issue, bragging to an aide that he knows TIME publisher Henry Luce and got the story placed as part of his campaign for the Commerce position. The real TIME cover story explains Strauss’ complicated personality that Nolan also explores in the movie:

For it is the personality, and not the competence, of Lewis Strauss that is clearly at issue as he nears the crisis of his career. Strauss, by the extraordinary ingredients of his makeup, is one to arouse superlatives of praise and blame, admiration and dislike. In the eyes of friends, he is brilliant, devoted, courageous and, in his more relaxed moments, exceedingly charming. His enemies regard him as arrogant, evasive, suspicious-minded, pride-ridden, and an excessively rough battler. (“He has more elbows than an octopus.”)

…A vital key to Lewis Strauss’s character is a perfectionism that still seems to nag him at an age when he might have become more mellowed. It shows in the studied elegance of his tailoring, in a precision of speech that comes natural to him from long habit but seems a bit affected to unfriendly ears, and above all in a fierce reluctance to admit his mistakes, no matter how human and understandable they may have been. Some of his perfectionism traces back to a sense of being an outsider. As a Jew, he has sometimes felt the wounding edges of anti-Semitism (and again last week, that ugly term popped up). For all his wealth (he is a millionaire) and intellect (even his enemies admit that he is brainy), Strauss seems unable to live down in his own mind an awareness that he never went to college and that he started out as a traveling shoe salesman.

Strauss’s hopes that a TIME story would boost his chances of confirmation didn’t work; the Senate did not confirm him to be Commerce Secretary.

Read the full stories about Oppenheimer and Strauss in the TIME vault here and here.

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