How Historically Accurate Is 'Manhattan'? The Series' Consultants Share How They Mix Fact With Fiction
On Tuesday night, when WGN America's Manhattan returns for Season 2, it will continue to tackle topics and events you probably remember from high school history class. Names like Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein are thrown around, real events from World War II are often mentioned, and the entire series hinges on The Manhattan Project, scientists' efforts to create a nuclear bomb in the 1940s. But even with so many historical elements, you have to wonder, how accurate is Manhattan ? After all, save for the occasional appearance from Dr. Oppenheimer, the characters you got to know in Season 1 were fictional, yet living in a very real place, working on a very real project, during one of the most important periods in American history. So how much truth is found within the series?
"It is fiction and it diverges in many ways strongly from the actual past," Manhattan historical consultant Alex Wellerstein says, as he sits on the set just miles from where the first real atomic bomb was tested. "But what I always try to do is make it so that if they do diverge, that’s plausible." So while Charlie Isaacs may not be an actual scientist from history, what we saw him go through in Season 1 was accurate for that time, and could've happened to a real person.
Considering the amount of scenes that take place in a lab, it should come as no surprise that maintaining scientific accuracy is also important to Manhattan, which is where science consultant David Saltzberg comes in. "I have an easier time of it," he says. "Because in the end ... we still live in our universe with the physical laws, so I need to take a look and just make sure we’re not getting densities completely wrong or some physics statement completely wrong." If it's any consolation to Saltzberg, there can't be too many viewers out there ready to pounce on a scientific inaccuracy, no matter how closely we're paying attention.
However, as Season 2 builds towards the Trinity Test, both scientific and historical accuracy will likely become even more important. The test really did happen in 1945 outside of Los Alamos, which Wellerstein explains poses a challenge. "This has been a really tricky timeline of saying 'OK, what’s — could they have done it at this time? Could they have assembled it in this way at this moment on this day?'" he says. "We’re trying to come up with something that both fits the story really well and is not taking so many liberties with the past that it becomes completely unrelated to it." But that's not to say he is one to back down from a challenge — nor is Saltzberg.
The two consultants are already looking forward to Manhattan's future, and the different scientific and historical developments they can help bring to life after detonating the atomic bomb. "I’m looking forward even beyond Season 2," Saltzberg says. "The Cold War, and all the intrigue that went on there, and the physics behind the hydrogen bomb that’s coming up all look really interesting ... A lot of [those] stories have not been told on television or in movies."
Wellerstein is also looking ahead past World War II, as he says, "I’m excited about the hydrogen bomb, the super. This is when they realize that the bombs that they used in World War II are firecrackers compared to what you can do. They start to contemplate questions like how many bombs does it take to completely make the world uninhabitable for humans beings. And that puts everything into an even more stark light morally, technically, and politically." If with Wellerstein and Saltzberg's help Manhattan can make the atomic bomb this intriguing, just imagine what it could do what all of that.
Image: WGN America