Hello everyone! Today’s post will focus on the first episode of Manhattan, a television show which aired from 2014-2016 on WGN America. The show focuses on the Manhattan Project, which produced the world’s first nuclear weapons from a secretive base in the New Mexican desert during the Second World War. It is an interesting show, one which covers fascinating topics; it is not, however, especially historically accurate. In a slight mitigating factor, the producers of the show were not aiming for full accuracy, only trying to bring to life the atmosphere which the scientists at Los Alamos would have experienced. However, it is nonetheless important to discuss the inaccuracies in the show to avoid any confusion.
First of all, few of the characters depicted in Manhattan are real-life individuals. The sole exception to this rule is J. Robert Oppenheimer, the historical head of the Project, who does make a brief appearance in the first episode; he is sufficiently famous, however, that his absence would likely have been noted by audiences. The remainder of the characters are not historical, however; this includes Frank Winter and Charlie Isaacs, two of the main characters, along with their subordinates. Winter, the head of the team producing the Fat Man bomb, may be a fictionalized equivalent of Seth Neddermeyer, the man who historically held this position; otherwise, the scientists the audience meets are at best amalgamations of historical individuals. The bombs on which the competing teams in the show are working are historical, however; there was a real divide between the uranium explosion bomb, Little Boy, and the plutonium implosion bomb, Fat Man (both of which would function in the end). In the first episode there is relatively little introduction to the hard science behind the project, however, and so it is difficult to tell exactly how accurate this depiction was.
Probably the most accurate portion of the episode was the depiction of the home lives of the scientists and their families. By the end of the war, 5000 people lived at Los Alamos, all of whom were assigned a single P.O. Box as an address for reasons of national security. The scientists often brought their families along, and their children and spouses (regardless of whether they were employed by the Project) were expected to live in Los Alamos as well. As depicted briefly in the first episode of the show, this meant constant exposure to the radioactive substances which were in use in the production of the atomic bombs. At the time, it was unknown whether uranium and plutonium would have negative health effects on humans, as the only data point most scientists had to work with was the tragic and grotesque deaths of the radium dial painters in the 1920s and 30s. This was sufficient to warn those in charge of the Manhattan Project that some caution might be required, and they conducted research into the effects of radiation on the human body (often without the consent of the unfortunate participants in these studies) to determine the potential risks. Following the war, more extensive research was conducted and compensation often payed to those who had been affected. These issues were foreshadowed by the mutated flower discovered by Liza Winters near the end of the first episode.
Overall, Manhattan gets many things right about life in Los Alamos but nonetheless fictionalizes their overall storyline. None of the characters are historically accurate save for Oppenheimer himself; while this does allow the producers of the show to direct the storyline in the ways that they see fit (so long as it ends with a bang), it does mean that the show is not particularly historically accurate.
1 Bustle. “How Historically Accurate is ‘Manhattan’? The Series’ Consultants Share How They Mix Fact With Fiction.” October 13, 2015. https://www.bustle.com/articles/116785-how-historically-accurate-is-manhattan-the-series-consultants-share-how-they-mix-fact-with-fiction.
2 Atomic Heritage Foundation. “Profiles.” Last Modified 2017. http://www.atomicheritage.org/bios.
3 University of Pittsburgh. “The Manhattan Project.” n.d. http://www.pitt.edu/~sdb14/atombomb.html.
4 University of Pittsburgh. “The Manhattan Project.” n.d. http://www.pitt.edu/~sdb14/atombomb.html.
5 Atomic Heritage Foundation. “Los Alamos, NM.” Last modified 2017. http://www.atomicheritage.org/location/los-alamos-nm.
6 Ferguson, Maggie. “The Radium Girls – still glowing in their coffins.” The Spectator. 11 June 2016. https://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/06/the-radium-girls-still-glowing-in-their-coffins/#.
7 Georgetown University. “The Manhattan Project: A New and Secret World of Human Experimentation.” n.d. https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/achre/final/intro_3.html.