The Manhattan Project (1986)

Kevin Garcia

It’s not often a film may casually reference The Day the Earth Stood Still, Dr. Strangelove, and Galileo’s ethical stances and do it right.

The Manhattan Project

Director: Marshall Brickman
Cast: Paul Austin, Sully Boyar, Dan Butler, Timothy Carhart, Al Cerullo
Distributor: Lions Gate
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Columbia
First date: 1986
US DVD Release Date: 2007-06-19

You could never make a movie like The Manhattan Project today. The film could be "made", sure, but the wide-eyed, idealistic innocence that allowed viewers to see a teenage boy making a 50 megaton atomic bomb and carrying it into the heart of New York City as a quasi-comedic hero just doesn’t exist anymore. That does not mean, however, that the movie has lost its relevance. The War on Terror may be very different from the Cold War, but the underlying fear that the world could become an even more dangerous place in an instant certainly still exists.

The Manhattan Project follows teenage prodigy Paul Stephens (Christopher Collet) as he discovers the Plutonium stockpile of nuclear physicist (a very serious John Lithgow) and conspires with his whistleblower girlfriend (a very young Cynthia Nixon) to be the first person to design and build a homemade nuclear bomb. Where more popular Cold War-era teen suspense-comedy movies like Real Genius and WarGames took big leaps with what science could do (particularly Real Genius), great steps are taken to ensure realism in The Manhattan Project.

No, the movie doesn’t really show you how to make a nuclear bomb, but it talks about physics and mathematical theories so accurately that the film could entertain even the most cynical of scientifically-minded viewers and was so realistic, in fact, that the movie was nearly shut down as a matter of national security.

One of the refreshing things about having a special edition DVD for a 20-year-old movie is the fresh perspective that filmmakers can bring to something viewers have seen over and over again. The making-of featurettes, for example, provided confirmation of something I’d always suspected, that government officials really did see the film as a safety risk. According to the director Marshall Brickman and his co-writer Thomas Baum, the film’s scientific consultants were told in no uncertain terms that they should stop cooperating with the moviemakers.

Believe it or not, the movie's actually based on a true story. In 1977 Princeton University student John Aristotle Phillips earned the nickname "The A-Bomb Kid" when he tried to turn in his all-too-real plans for making a bomb for a junior-level term paper. Like the filmmakers and the fictional Paul Stephens, Phillps was accosted by the authorities – but he never got nearly as close to nuclear annihilation as the film’s hero.

Paul’s one of those perfect kids who only exists in the movies: he can reprogram a supercomputer, play varsity soccer, jimmy a lock and pick up a girl on the first try. And yet, as bright as he is, he doesn’t know who Woodward and Bernstein or Anne Frank were; a considerable conceit, sure, but something audiences can accept while suspending disbelief.

Almost as hard to believe is the non-existent career of Christopher Collet. With his staring role in this iconic 1986 film he seemed destined for greatness – maybe not to the same level as Matthew Broderick (who earned fame in a similar role three years earlier), but at least as big Jay Underwood. Still, Collet had few roles after this film, and much less success.

The same can’t be said for the girl he got to kiss repeatedly while making the movie. Girlfriend Jenny Anderman was played by Cynthia Nixon, long before she would become known worldwide as one of the four ladies of Sex in the City. She looked lovely back then, though I preferred her as the short-haired Miranda.

Of course, the real star of the film, if one-sheets and billing order mean anything, was John Lithgow. I know he’s played many roles in a variety of genres, but I’ll always see him as a comedic actor first. Maybe if I hadn’t watched Harry and the Hendersons so many times as a kid, that wouldn’t have happened, but ah well. Lithgow brings a distant and slightly crazy sentimentality to the absent-minded professor role. Although the physicist Dr. Mathewson doesn’t receive as much screen time as the teens, his scenes are always played with the appropriate emotional depth, especially as the story, and nearly New York State, nears its conclusion.

Despite all the seriousness, there are some great one-liners sprinkled throughout the movie.

Mathewson: “You try to tough it out with them, they’ll lock you in a room somewhere and throw away the room.”

Or my personal favorite:

Jenny: “Why are you doing this?”

Moore, the science geek: “Because life, my dear, is more than just freezing toads.”

The movie has it’s glitches of course. It’s a bit too slow-moving to justify the 118-minute length. There are a few plot problems (I’m still not quite sure why Paul needed to use an RC car to steal plutonium), and I have to wonder how many characters from the film developed debilitating forms of radiation poisoning or cancer afterwards. Still, it’s a great flick.

It’s not often a film may casually reference The Day the Earth Stood Still, Dr. Strangelove, and Galileo’s ethical stances and do it right. These references are given further depth thanks to the special features included with this special edition.

An “80’s Trivia Track” informs viewers, as they watch the movie, about pop culture events from 1986. This includes everything from the release of films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Karate Kid, to historical events like the Challenger explosion and Haley’s Comet, to seemingly less important details that add perspective, like the start of Fox television and .89 cent gasoline.

Halfway through the film, pop culture facts stop coming and there is nothing but nuclear fear facts. From that point on the fun and happy pop-up style facts turn into detailed accounts, facts and figures about just how far the world went toward self-destruction during the '80s, nuclear proliferation, present-tense, and where may be heading.

Other special features are nice touches, though the audio commentary isn’t as exciting as it could be. It’s not that I expect commentary tracks to be exciting, but they could have brought a few more people in to spice things up. Even the director realized this when early into the track he pauses and admits, “I don’t know what the hell to say.” That said, what he does say provides useful insight to any would-be filmmakers.

For example, it seems he never lived down the success he experienced with Woody Allen on Annie Hall and, even 20 years later, he can’t help but second-guess every choice he made on The Manhattan Project. Brickman even speculates on the reality of a nuclear terrorist attack. “All I can think of now are images of 9/11.” According to him, the fact that a nuclear attack has not happened since the dawn of the atomic age is a testament to the safeguards in place.

Even so, he would have trouble making the movie again today. “The suspension of disbelief is harder to achieve now” he explained. “We have too much to suspend.” He’s right, and it's a good thing The Manhattan Project was made when it was.






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