Before Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (2023), the story of the creation of the atomic bomb was told in dramatic form on the small screen in the superb but little seen series Manhattan (2014-2015).
Set on the Los Alamos, New Mexico, military base in 1943, it is about the development of the atomic bomb and the uneasy society in this gated community guarded by MPs who, like everyone else not directly involved with the project, don’t actually know what the brain trust of physicists and engineers are working on.
The real-life Manhattan Project was developed across multiple sites spread around the country (the series even visits one of those sites) but Los Alamos was at the center of it. This is where the device was to be designed and built and Robert Oppenheimer (Daniel London), the head of the program, had two teams working in competition on separate approaches.
That’s where we come into the story with young physics wunderkind Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), who arrives with his wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan, before she was Mrs. Maisel) to a high-security base that is not on any map. It’s simply identified as PO Box 1663 and it feels like a cross between a cheaply-built gated community and an internment camp.
Charlie is assigned to the favored team led by Reed Akley (David Harbour) but he’s obsessed with impressing Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey), the brilliant leader of the misfit B-team who has a habit of bucking the chain of command. Olivia Williams is Frank’s wife Liza, a botany professor in her own right who is dismissed as simply another base wife by the military command even as she discovers the radiation accumulating around the camp (it’s killing the bees). Oppenheimer, of course, was a real-life historical figure but most of the characters in this show are dramatic fictions standing in for the real-life participants.
The tension between the military structure and civilian scientists and families is just part of the drama. Much of the story is caught up in the politics of the base: who gets to work on projects, how the money and equipment is used as leverage, how the culture of secrecy and suspicion undermines a sense of community and shared commitment. Hovering over it all is are representatives of the security services (notably West Wing veteran Richard Schiff) tracking every possible intelligence leak and possible sabotage attempt, especially after their mole in Germany is captured. At this point in the war, the focus is on the war in Europe and they are racing Hitler’s team to the bomb. Those stakes are more than simply a dramatic device. The fear of the Axis beating them to them bomb is a very real possibility.
William Petersen joins the show in the second season as the base Colonel driving the scientific team, now under the direction of Charlie Isaacs, with falsified information about the German effort to develop their own bomb. Frank Winter is now a military prisoner in a secret prison for revealing project secrets to his wife, and his journey takes him back to the base, where he tries to rouse the scientists into demanding more say into how the bomb will be used. The fear of spies and the effects of radiation on the landscape and the men and women working on the project (which the military doesn’t seem interested in knowing) continues and Oppenheimer (who is just a minor part of this dramatic take) is distracted by a self-destructive affair.
But there are also moral issues at stake. When Germany surrenders, what is the purpose of finishing a bomb to end a war with Japan that is only a matter of time? What are the ethical responsibilities of the scientists working on the project? What happens when patriotism, humanism, and professional ambition conflict?
Thomas Schlamme, who visualized Aaron Sorkin’s ideas on The West Wing, is an executive producer and directs the pilot, setting the tone of the show. The Spartan setting helps stretch the budget, which uses the dusty streets, shabby shack housing, and forlorn isolation in the middle of nowhere to define the atmosphere of this community, and the personal dramas and challenges define the culture of suspicion and the social world of wartime America, with all its prejudices and anxieties. Some of the storylines stumble a bit and the personal betrayals at times come off as dramatic contrivances, but at its best the series dramatizes the stakes of the project—and the cost in lives—in human terms, and it casts its gaze on a culture that has not been explored on the screen in any depth.
Manhattan was the second original drama from the Chicago cable superstation and aspiring cable player WGN. Created by Sam Shaw (who also developed Masters of Sex and Castle Rock), it was an ambitious bid to expand the channel’s reach and its reputation with a serious drama that reaches for the level of human drama, social commentary, and historical perspective of shows like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and Masters of Sex. It largely succeeds but sadly WGN declined to pick up the acclaimed but low-rated show after season two. Given that the season builds to the first successful test of the atomic bomb, however, it’s not a bad way for the show to go out. It ran for 18 episodes in all.
Katja Herbers plays as the only female physicist on base and Michael Chernus, Christopher Denham Harry Lloyd, Daniel Stern, and Peter Stormare costar. John Carroll Lynch, Mamie Gummer, Griffin Dunne, Neve Campbell, Justin Kirk, and Brad Garrett have recurring roles.
It won an Emmy for title design and an award from the American Society of Cinematographers.
Streams free for a limited time on Kanopy, which is available through most public and college library systems, and free with ads for a limited time on Amazon Freevee
Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Manhattan: Season 1 [Blu-ray]
Manhattan: Season 1 [DVD]
Manhattan: Season 2 [Blu-ray]
Manhattan: Season 2 [DVD]