You might think from its coyly uninformative title that the new television series MANHATTAN is about bartenders mixing the Manhattan cocktail. Or you might expect the show to have a SEX AND THE CITY feel. The truth should delight history buffs. The new show, slated for 13 episodes on the cable channel WGN America, is about the Manhattan project set in New Mexico in 1943 when J. Robert Oppenheimer led a group of brilliant scientists to develop the world's first atomic bomb. This review of the pilot episode contains no major plot spoilers.
All of the main characters with the exception of Oppenheimer are fictional. This gives the show tremendous freedom with the storylines, dialog, and character interactions so long as they adhere to the basic historical facts. And such a huge organization as the Manhattan project, comprised of scientists and military, has plenty of room for these invented characters who represent the real, ordinary folk who never got their story told. As the series progresses, we probably will not see extended performances by actors playing historical figures such as Colonel Leslie Groves or physicists Enrico Fermi and Richard Feynman. However, we will get to involve ourselves in the lives of the fictional, but more relatable, ordinary people who were deeply affected by the secrecy and the urgency of the project.
The action takes place at the top secret military base that will become Los Alamos National Laboratory, but is referred to by the characters as "the Hill." We first see obsessive physicist Frank Winter (played by John Benjamin Hickey) and a colleague hitting golf balls into the windy desert night as their car radio reports the latest death toll of American soldiers in the Pacific. The golf ball gives Frank an insight into how to compress the core of plutonium in a bomb. He and his team of six are racing against a larger team headed by suave scientist Reed Akley. Both teams want Oppenheimer to choose their design to take to completion. Everyone is under extreme pressure to produce results as fast as possible to (1) beat the Nazis, who are developing their own atomic bomb, and (2) to end the war to stop soldiers from dying every day. Akley's design, the Thin Man, is in the lead and overwhelmingly likely to be chosen. Frank is desperate enough to do anything to advance his design. When he manages to score a frustratingly short interview with Oppenheimer in the back seat of a car headed for the train station, the great man is a lot like you might expect: very young (Oppenheimer was about forty at the time), dreamily aloof, and given to quasi-mystical pronouncements (he liked to read Hindu scripture such as the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit).
Our other main character brilliant young scientist Charley Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman) arrives with his unsuspecting wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) at the Hill, which he has assured her will be like Cambridge but with sand. He is assigned to Akley's design team. The two men talk and it becomes immediately apparent that while Frank Winter with his weary stubbled face is driven to end the war, Akley is motivated by thoughts of personal immortality – or maybe just raw power. Charley seems awed by him but slightly uneasy. Meanwhile, poor Abby tries to make a home with their toddler in what seems to be a sandy, scorpion-infested wasteland in which the kids all get head lice, the houses are wired for constant audio surveillance, and the husbands are not allowed to tell their wives anything about their work. Many of these wives are highly educated such as Winter's wife Liza (Olivia Williams), a botanist who worries about the weird affect that the local soil is having on the plants. Imagine being among these wives who have given up their own careers to sit in the desert, bored out of their minds, and growing increasingly distant from their husbands while the military tries to run roughshod over everyone to enforce secrecy. The hostility between the army and the scientists is intense.
When Charley and Frank finally meet, Charley confesses his worries. Hoping for reassurance, he compares the atomic bomb project to the golem of Prague created by a rabbi to defend the Jews. Ultimately the golem became uncontrollable and destroyed everyone. Frank's harsh response is, "Have you been to Prague lately? There are no Jews left." This great moment showcases the personalities of both men. And then the show goes one better when Frank gives his attractive Hispanic housekeeper a ride home and blurts out the bare-bones truth of the Manhattan project to her because he knows she speaks no English. He obviously needs confession to assuage his guilt and loneliness. But it comes across as an almost adulterous betrayal of his wife who implored him earlier to talk to her. The pilot episode of MANHATTAN impresses me with its historic accuracy, realism, and drama. I'm looking forward to future episodes. Look on Amazon.com for the FREE pilot: Manhattan [HD]
Note: This episode is free, but if it hadn't been, I would have purchased it with my own personal funds. I received no compensation from anyone for this honest review.
See also Manhattan episode 2 review.
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