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Manhattan—a review

31 July 2014
How accurate and compelling is WGN America’s new TV drama about life in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project?

Manhattan is a thirteen-episode series, which in the words of its producers, "follows the brilliant but flawed scientists and their families as they attempt to co-exist in a world where secrets and lies infiltrate every aspect of their lives." Last Sunday night I was among a diverse group of people who assembled to watch the first two episodes.

Ellen Bradbury-Reid and Robert (Bob) Howes grew up in Los Alamos, and were children at the time that the episodes portray. Another member of our party lived at Wendover Air Force Base, Utah, a site important later in the Manhattan Project story. Besides me, a journalist and her friend and two spouses rounded out the gathering. We shared a pizza and then settled into Ellen’s living room.

Ellen was five when her family moved to Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos. They lived in a tent because there were not enough houses in Los Alamos. Her father worked on explosives. Bob was three when his family arrived. They moved into a quad, where a neighbor by the name of Enrico Fermi kept the heater going. Bob’s father became head of machining, which involved handling explosives, beryllium, and other dangerous materials.

The entrance to Los Alamos as portrayed in <i>Manhattan</i>. Secrecy and security are among the themes explored in the series. CREDIT: WGN America

The entrance to Los Alamos as portrayed in Manhattan. Secrecy and security are among the themes explored in the series. CREDIT: WGN America

The rest of us, except for the journalist’s friend, share an intense interest in Manhattan Project history, or have experienced that interest through a spouse’s devotion to the subject.

“Los Alamos was a great place to play,” Bob said. Ellen agreed. The GIs who patrolled the fences in jeeps were happy to pick up kids and take them places. Kids roamed free because parents knew there were watchers everywhere. They became connoisseurs of the explosions resounding across the canyons.

Knowing the history and being intimately familiar with the location turned out to be an impediment throughout the first episode. We noted, for instance, that rather than approaching Los Alamos via the road up The Hill, Charlie and Abby Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman and Rachael Brosnahan) enter through Bonanza Canyon, south of Santa Fe. Physical differences nagged: Houses weren’t green, people had washing machines, and there was a laundry rather than the common outdoor laundry tubs depicted in the series. Indoor sets were more authentic.

Ellen: “They ran out of water a lot.”

Bob: “Only IBM wore suits and ties.”

The characters, too, were a bit perplexing. Was Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) supposed to be Robert Oppenheimer? His wife, Liza (Olivia Williams), was very similar to Kitty Oppenheimer. When Oppenheimer (Daniel London) showed up later, we agreed the portrayal of him was horrible. Charlie Isaacs is Polish. Does he represent the bomb-designing mathematician Stanislaw Ulam? Where is Edward Teller?

By the end of the first episode, it was clear that none of the characters could be directly associated with people of the Manhattan Project. Although Frank Winter’s work resembles that of Seth Neddermeyer, our understanding of Neddermeyer’s personality was very different from Winter’s. The sub-plot of the Chinese physicist with a sick daughter never happened, because there were no Chinese physicists in Los Alamos.

Inaccuracies aside

However, our interest was whetted, and we looked forward to the second episode. Once we accepted that the characters were fully fictional, we could follow the story for what it was. Some details continued to irritate us. Los Alamos badges had photo ID, which required the absence of beards. But Frank’s boss, Glen Babbitt (Daniel Stern), sports a beard of Dickensian length. Even kids had passes with their photos on them, which they frequently lost.

As children, Ellen and Bob had been fascinated by the maids from the local pueblos, and they wanted to learn to speak their language, which was Tewa, not Spanish. To the children’s disappointment, it was not offered in the schools. The maids (nomenclature that confused me when I arrived in 1965) only cleaned houses and never served meals. It was not possible to drive them back to their pueblo after hours. They had to catch the last bus.

Olivia Williams and John Benjamin Hickey play Liza and Frank Winter. CREDIT: WGN America

Olivia Williams and John Benjamin Hickey play Liza and Frank Winter. CREDIT: WGN America

Secrecy was not absolute. Ellen’s father told her he was working on a new and different kind of bomb, which she thought was silly because bombs had already been invented. She counseled him that inventing a dragon was the thing to do if the adults wanted to win the war.

“I think this thing has legs,” concluded Friend of Journalist, our only nonaficionado, but added, “You have to learn the characters and start caring about them.” We all found the storyline and characters compelling, and decided that they would be more so to those who didn’t know the history.

The history of how the implosion idea that Neddermeyer championed became the main route to the plutonium bomb is also compelling. All of Los Alamos had to turn on a dime in the summer of 1944 to face an entirely new set of technical challenges. However, the series’ contrived competition between two groups for a sample of plutonium is unrealistic and sensationalized. Both groups would have needed the same data from the sample, and those data were acquired by other groups.

We as a group were curious how younger viewers would respond. We worried that they would take the series as accurately representing history. The small inaccuracies, of which there are many more than I’ve noted, are less important than the overall storyline, which, from a historical standpoint, is seriously marred by the subplot of the Chinese physicist. Other distortions are also present. It remains to be seen how the dramatically necessary conflict between the aborted Thin Man design and the successful implosion design plays out.

We plan to stay tuned.

Cheryl Rofer lived in Los Alamos from 1965 to 2004 and worked as a chemist at the Los Alamos Scientific/National Laboratory for most of that time. She has been fascinated by the Manhattan Project since she was a child. She contributes to the online forum Nuclear Diner.

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