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Harlan Strauss

Rima and Harlan Strauss with UO cinema studies students
Harlan (third from right) and Rima (third from left) Strauss with students from the UO's cinema studies program

 

“THE DUCK WHO HELPED BRING DOWN THE SOVIET UNION”

 

written by

 

Damian Foley

 

 

FADE IN:

 

INT. FORD ALUMNI CENTER – DAY

 

HARLAN STRAUSS, MA ’70, PhD ’74 and wife RIMA relax on a sofa in the spacious foyer of the Allyn Ford & Cheryl Ramberg Ford Alumni Center on the University of Oregon campus. As the summer sun streams through the large windows, bathing the open space in a warm glow, Harlan leans back and reminisces about his days as a political science student at the UO.

 

HARLAN

Oregon provided me with everything I could ever imagine, plus more. It was a great time to be here. There was a great faculty, and I was able to do so many things that have come up throughout my career. Everything that I have learned here at Oregon, every major and minor experience, has had an impact on everything that I’ve done since leaving the university.

BEGIN FLASHBACK:

 

INT: A CLASSROOM ON THE UO CAMPUS DURING THE LATE 1960S – DAY

 

While the conflict in Vietnam rages on the other side of the Pacific, UO students—bell bottoms, long hair, and all—find themselves thrust into a turbulent world where Saigon is as well-known as Salem, where they could be drafted to fight a war against their will. In a UO classroom, young Harlan sits at a desk, studiously taking notes from a political science professor considered a foremost expert in his field. Unbeknownst to him, his days at the UO will shape a glittering career that will take him to Capitol Hill in more ways than one.

 

HARLAN (V.O.)

They had the best instructors that anyone could imagine. I did my dissertation under Jim Davies, who was one of the leading experts on revolutions, political turmoil, and war. That had an impact later on when I was in the defense department, and all of the basic theoretical information that I picked up from Jim impacted my program development and my insights as I was advising eight secretaries of defense in the national securities area.

 

I worked under Tom Hovet—a wonderful man and chairman of the department of the time—who was an expert in international organizations. Later I was involved with various United Nations agencies, representing the defense department and the U.S. government in various negotiations, treaties and everything else. What I learned from Tom about working with international organizations was fundamental to my success.

 

DISSOLVE TO:

 

INT. A KITCHEN DURING THE LATE 1960S – DAY

 

The mouth-watering aromas of cardamon, cumin, garam masala, onion, and ginger fill the air as Harlan leans over an electric stove, cooking in the heart of a formica-countertopped, linoleum-floored kitchen. More than just a budding political scientist, he is earnestly making use of extracurricular activities provided by the UO.

 

HARLAN (V.O.)

I always took irrelevant things as well, just to keep my mind off my work. One of the things that I took was a course in Indian cooking. There, the wife of a very esteemed visiting professor of nuclear physics wanted to do something for the community so she offered this course over the course of a semester.

 

END FLASHBACK.

 

INT. FORD ALUMNI CENTER – DAY

 

Following his graduation, Harlan worked as a research director for professor Harmon Ziegler’s Institute for Policy Studies, and after a few more stops in D.C.—including a position as the research director for the GOP Caucus in the House of Representatives—became part of the administration following Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. As the day advances, Harlan turns his attention to his early years on Capitol Hill and his work with the political and economic union of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg (Benelux) during the Cold War.

 

HARLAN

When I reached the defense department under Casper Weinberger, I was working under the man known as the ‘Prince of Darkness,’ Richard Perle—who really wasn’t that bad, and was in fact very good to me and was someone who was very open who I could talk to at any time. I first began working in European policy, in charge of U.S. defense relations with Benelux countries. At that time we were working with them to put defensive—and not-so-defensive—missiles into their countries, to put pressure on the Soviet Union. The secretary liked my work and invited me to represent him in what turned out to be a two-year East-West negotiation in Stockhholm, Sweden.

 

BEGIN FLASHBACK:

 

INT. CONFERENCE ROOM IN STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN, 1986 – DAY

 

Huddled around a table, Harlan and international negotiators work around the clock hammering out the details of the Stockholm Conference on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures’ (CSBM) binding document. The CSBM reduced the risk of armed conflict in Europe, and led to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). As the Cold War inched toward its end, the Soviet Union was forced to reduce the number of tanks, aircraft, and artillery at its disposal. 

 

HARLAN (V.O.)

We were in constant meetings and discussions with East-West states, the Soviet Union and their allies, the neutrals known as NNA—neutral non-aligned—and the Western nations. This led, frankly, to the breakup of the Soviet Union, these negotiations and discussions, and I feel very strongly that the work I did in Oregon had an impact on how I worked there in Stockholm at the CSCE negotiations.

 

END FLASHBACK.

 

INT. FORD ALUMNI CENTER – DAY

 

Harlan was kept busy in D.C., first meeting and then marrying Rima, establishing a cultural union with Sweden, and working to keep U.S. and allied technological assets safe from unfriendly prying eyes. In 1989, while helping Bulgaria’s emerging environmental movement find its footing, he was attacked and poisoned by people sympathetic to Communist president Todor Zhivkov. One of his larger projects was heading a congressionally mandated program to deal with weapons of mass destruction and former Soviet Union nations.

 

HARLAN

I developed programs with 25 countries, and developed a budget with congress in my last year of close to $25 million to spend on training and equipping various countries in the former Soviet Union. Where the State Department—because of congressional legislation—could not engage with some of these countries in terms of program development, I could do it because of my legislative mandates, so I was the first person to send my program into many of these countries: Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and so many others. I developed close to 25 bilateral treaties, which I negotiated with the legal team, with these countries that still stand today as fundamental to the US relationships with all these countries.

 

BEGIN FLASHBACK:

 

INT. STRAUSS RESIDENCE DINING ROOM, EARLY 90s – NIGHT

 

Harlan, Rima, and representatives of former Soviet Union nations sit around the Strauss’ dining room table in their renovated 200-year-old home on Capitol Hill, negotiating treaties long after the sun has gone down. To aid in the negotiations, Harlan calls on every skill he has learned in D.C., as well as more than a few he picked up years ago at the University of Oregon.

 

RIMA (V.O.)

State Department people, after five, would go home to the suburbs, so these people from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, would be left to do nothing in Washington. We invited them over for big receptions.

 

HARLAN (V.O.)

The Indian meals that I cooked in Washington for large banquets proved to be stellar and unique, and helped the overall effort as a representative of the U.S. government in terms of my negotiation style.

 

I was friendly, and promoted in a different way what the United States was about. Throughout their lifetimes and careers they’d been given the Soviet propaganda about the United States and what ogres we were. We’re far from that. We’re people, and we’re good people throughout.

 

END FLASHBACK.

 

INT. FORD ALUMNI CENTER – EVENING

 

As the sun begins to set outside, Harlan opens up about his current career path. In the early days of the new millennium, and after close to thirty years spent working for eight Secretaries of Defense, he left Capitol Hill and went looking for a new challenge—one just as filled with drama, betrayals, and half-truths as the Department of Defense.

 

HARLAN

I still had some spunk, and didn’t want to do what everyone else does when they leave the Pentagon or government service, that is to join a consultancy or Beltway bandit or Raytheon. I was interviewed for any one of a number of senior positions, vice president of a number of companies, but we discussed it, and why did I need that aggravation? Why don’t I think about what could be good for me, and what kind of challenges lay ahead?

 

DISSOLVE TO:

 

INT. THE SET OF NETFLIX’S HOUSE OF CARDS – DAY

 

Congressional Committee Chairman Edward C. Lawrence, played by Harlan, oversees a hearing about military base realignment. In a stunning turn of events, Congressman Peter Russo (D-PA), played by COREY STOLL, opts to let a naval shipyard in his district close, despite promising during his campaign to keep it open.

 

HARLAN (V.O.)

I did my cost-benefit analysis, and realized I was good with people, good at negotiations, good at convincing people of policy positions I didn’t believe in, and I thought, ‘Aha, I’ve been acting all this time!’ I’ve gone as far and high as I can go in government—why don’t I see if I can start again at the lowest level in showbiz and see where that will lead me? I started taking courses, started with student films in New York, and gradually got my bona fides and thought, ‘Yeah, I could do this.’ Just like government it’s a tough world out there in acting, but I’ve clawed my way up with a few good roles. My most well-known is a small part in House of Cards, which was a lot of fun.

 

END DISSOLVE.

 

INT. FORD ALUMNI CENTER – EVENING

 

Aha! Now the format of this story makes sense. Harlan, now an actor, has portrayed everyone from the President of the United States to Academy Award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. In addition to House of Cards, he has appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live, and wrote and directed the online short Congressman J. Freddie Muggs Reports to the People of Westlake. Buoyed by the success of his career change, he opens up about his decision to give back to the UO in a manner that will help Ducks hoping to break into the film and television industry.

 

HARLAN

At a point when Rima and I started talking about, ‘What do we do with our assets?’ what’s the best direction to go with whatever we had that might be the most meaningful, and considering everything the university had given me in the past—all this knowhow and the basic foundation for everything that I did—it made sense to engage with the university.

 

After discussions with development people and the College of Arts and Sciences, we felt the best use of our funds would be to put together a visiting professorship in cinema studies. Experts, people from the outside who are leaders in this area and who have a future, can come to Oregon for two weeks at a time and become a fellow, a visiting professor, under our gift, and work with these younger students in a way in which they couldn’t before.

 

DISSOLVE TO:

 

 

INT. A CLASSROOM ON THE UNIVERSITY OF OREGON CAMPUS – DAY

 

Film producer NEIL KOPP (Certain Women, Green Room, Paranoid Park), the Harlan J. Strauss Visiting Filmmaker Endowment in Cinema Studies' first instructor, jauntily sits, surrounded by cinema studies students who, like recent graduate MICHAELA GIUNCHIGLIANI, sit rapt, taking in his every word. As he dispenses advice on everything from the creative process to distribution, culled from his years in the industry, they hang on his every word, thinking, “One day… “

 

NEIL

The students have been great. I'm amazed at how old I feel compared to them, and how bright they are. I don't remember kids being that smart when I was their age. A lot of them have a real sense of what they want to do, and where they fit in the world. 

 

MICHAELA

Rima and Harlan were happy and excited to see that we were learning a lot. We learned the lingo. I know what I’m talking about now, and that’s the whole point of college.

 

 

FADE TO BLACK. 

Associate professor of cinema studies Michael Aronson, Green Room director Jeremy Saulnier, and Green Room producer Neil Kopp address UO students
Associate professor of cinema studies Michael Aronson,
Green Room director Jeremy Saulnier, and Green Room producer—and visiting professor—Neil Kopp address UO students following a screening of Green Room. (photo by Joshua Rainey Photography)