Of all the familiar faces that show up when the action of Oppenheimer moves to Los Alamos, you might not have expected Benny Safdie to be the one with the most screen time. Best known to this point as the director, alongside his brother, Josh, of intense indies like Uncut Gems and Good Time, Safdie has been expanding more into acting, with another key supporting role in a very different 2023 film: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
From the moment Safdie opens his mouth, his performance is full of surprises. Playing the physicist Edward Teller, who emigrated from Hungary in the 1930s, Safdie has a thick Eastern European accent as he engages in spirited debates with his fellow Los Alamos scientists. Like many of the physicists recruited to the Manhattan Project, Teller was already well-known in his field by the time he went to Los Alamos; he and another Manhattan Project scientist, Hans Bethe (played by Gustaf Skarsgård in the film), had already collaborated on a study of shock waves.
In the biography American Prometheus, which Christopher Nolan adapted for the film, authors Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin count Teller among “some of the best minds at Los Alamos.” He reoccurs throughout the book in one-on-one conversations with Oppenheimer, as he does in the film. When Teller went to Oppenheimer to complain on behalf of other scientists about their mail being screened by military counterintelligence officers, Oppenheimer “replied bitterly, ‘What are they griping about? I am not allowed to talk to my own brother.’” (Oppenheimer’s reliance on his brother, Frank, a member of the Communist Party, becomes part of the film as well.)
But it was at Los Alamos that the eventual divide between Oppenheimer and Teller became visible as well. Assigned to work on calculations for an implosion bomb, Teller instead became “obsessed” with the potential for a “Super” thermonuclear bomb, what would eventually grow into the hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer became so frustrated with Teller’s lack of cooperation that he quipped to a friend, “God protect us from the enemy without and the Hungarians within.” Teller did threaten to quit the project entirely, and Oppenheimer offered him a compromise very similar to what we see in the film: Teller could stay in Los Alamos and work on the thermonuclear bomb, even though Oppenheimer had no intention of building it. He could also meet with Oppenheimer for an hour a week to talk about anything he liked.
After the war, Teller persisted in his obsession with the Super; as the film shows, when he asked Oppenheimer to urge others to continue research on it, Oppenheimer replied curtly, “I neither can nor will do so.” Though Teller joined Oppenheimer and other Los Alamos scientists in warning against the dangers of an arms race, he went on to ally himself with Oppenheimer’s political enemies in Washington in the years leading up to Oppenheimer’s monumental 1954 security clearance hearing. William Borden, the congressional staffer who worked alongside Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) to cast suspicion on Oppenheimer, was in close contact with Teller around the same time; “Teller worked assiduously to cultivate Borden against Oppenheimer,” write Bird and Sherwin. Teller is the source of the line we see Oppenheimer say to Harry Truman in the Oval Office in the film; asked what the government should do with Los Alamos, Teller alleged that Oppenheimer had said, “Let’s give it back to the Indians.”
Convinced that Oppenheimer was working to block the development of the H-bomb, Teller told the FBI he “would do anything possible” to see that Oppenheimer’s government work was terminated. He did testify in the 1954 security hearing and, as we see in the film, extended his hand to Oppenheimer to say “I’m sorry” afterward. In real life, Oppenheimer was prepared with a comeback: “After what you’ve just said, I don’t know what you mean.” And Teller also did testify, at Lewis Strauss’s request, in Strauss’s 1959 Senate confirmation hearing to become commerce secretary. Teller credited Strauss for his “long-standing, warm, and effective support of science.” It wasn’t enough; Strauss wasn’t confirmed.
In 1963, less than two weeks after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty, visited the White House, where Oppenheimer received the prestigious Fermi Award from Lyndon Johnson. Teller was there in the room, and, as Bird and Sherwin write, “Everyone watched with mounting tension as the two men came face to face. With Kitty standing stone-faced beside him, Oppenheimer grinned and shook Teller’s hand.”
Teller was ostracized by many of his scientific colleagues for his testimony against Oppenheimer, but he continued to advocate for nuclear technology for the rest of his life. He was also one of the first scientists to warn about the potential of man-made climate change. In 1959, he gave a speech at a symposium sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute warning about excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and its potential to “melt the icecap and submerge New York.” His warning, needless to say, was not exactly heeded.