by Julian Spivey
The cineplexes across America will be a buzz this weekend with the biggest movie release day in quite some time with both Christopher Nolan’s latest “Oppenheimer,” a three-hour epic of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man tasked by the United States government with designing and building the atomic bomb, and Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” about America’s favorite plastic doll who comes to life to live among the real world. It’s an event that’s been billed by some as “Barbenheimer” and pre-bought tickets have been flying off the internet in preparation for the packed cinemas.
“Barbie” is projected to make around $100 million in its opening weekend at the box office. “Oppenheimer” will probably do somewhere in the $40-50 million range.
When it comes to “Barbie” you’re definitely going to have to contend with packed and likely sold-out showings for its opening weekend, but if you do get in at under two hours it should be a breezy watch, even if it's likely a bit more subversive that some might be expecting.
However, “Oppenheimer” at three hours and with such a serious tone there may be some interested in the film, like me, who may not want to fight both packed theaters and a three-hour runtime and might consider waiting for it to hit video-on-demand or streaming – which would certainly make Nolan cringe if he read that. I might catch it at the cinema sometime after opening weekend, but damn three hours is longer than baseball games are these days.
Anyway, if you’re going to wait for a while for “Oppenheimer” – or you just want a fantastic companion to the film – you should definitely check out the short-lived drama series “Manhattan,” which aired for two seasons on WGN America from 2014-2015. All 23 episodes of this exquisite series, created by Sam Shaw, can be streamed for free (with occasional ad interruption) on Tubi, which has gained in viewership lately as TV viewers flock to cheaper viewing options (and I’m sure those creepy rabbit Super Bowl commercials didn’t hurt). While there’s certainly a lot of dreck to scroll through on Tubi, there are also terrific, forgotten or little-watched gems like this period piece drama that aired on a network that doesn’t even exist anymore.
“Manhattan,” while featuring J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Daniel London) himself in a recurring role, is more about the scientists working directly on the Manhattan Project to create the atomic bomb at Project X in the newly created desert town of Los Alamos, N.M., which the outside world knows little to nothing about for safety and security purposes.
“Manhattan” is based on history, but doesn’t intend to be historically accurate, which gives it some nice leeway as far as drama goes. Oppenheimer may actually be the only real-life character in the bunch in the few times he appears onscreen.
The series mostly focuses on the team of Dr. Frank Winter, played by the underrated John Benjamin Hickey, who leads a small group of scientists, basically considered the ‘B Team’ of the site, but also includes a rising star of a scientist prospect in Dr. Charlie Isaacs, played by Ashley Zukerman. The team also includes scientists played by Katja Herbers, who’d go on to her terrific starring role in Paramount+’s horror-drama “Evil,” and Michael Chernus, who has a key role in AppleTV’s excellent sci-fi/drama “Severance.” However, the biggest rising star of “Manhattan” was Rachel Brosnahan, who plays Dr. Issacs’ wife Abby. After the cancellation of “Manhattan,” Brosnahan would, of course, go on to the Emmy-winning titular character in Amazon Prime Video’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
The series also features fantastic guest appearances at times from Daniel Stern, David Harbour (soon to go on to “Stranger Things” stardom), Richard Schiff, Griffin Dunne and William Petersen.
Part of what made “Manhattan” so intriguing is it not only showed these scientists working on the creation of the atomic bomb, but also their family life on the base. Olivia Williams’ portrayal of Dr. Liza Winter, a botanist who’s just as big of a star (if not more so) than her husband Frank in the world of academia but struggles to conform to life on the base.
The series is also kept very suspenseful by the constant threat of German or Japanese spies infiltrating the group of scientists to learn their secrets in the race to become the first nation in World War II to build and perhaps drop the bomb.
The intrigue, drama and historical aspects of “Manhattan” made for a riveting television series that I wish had lasted longer than its two seasons and had it been elsewhere and not a network that was trying late in its run to become sort of like a competitor to AMC’s “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” et all, may have succeeded in bringing in more viewers. The critical reception was always favorable.
If you never saw “Manhattan” the first time around – and the odds are you didn’t – there’s never been a better time to revisit it than now during “Oppenheimer” mania. So, fire up that Tubi app and enjoy!