The Manhattan Project (1986)


(director/writer: Marshall Brickman; screenwriter: Thomas Baum; cinematographer: Billy Williams; editor: Nina Feinberg; cast: John Lithgow (John Mathewson ), Christopher Collet (Paul Stephens), Cynthia Nixon (Jenny Anderman), Jill Eikenberry (Elizabeth Stephens), John Mahoney (Lieutenant Colonel Conroy), Gregg Edelman (Science Teacher), Abe Unger (Roland); Runtime: 117; Gladden; 1986)
“There was something absorbing about these nuclear scientists doing their job.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Paul Stephens (Christopher Collet) is a high school science whiz in Ithaca, New York, where he lives with his recently divorced real estate agent mother, Elizabeth (Jill Eikenberry). When the new scientist arrives in town, the likable John Mathewson (Lithgow), he gets to lease a condo through Paul’s mother and starts to date her. To impress Paul and win points with his mom, he takes him on a tour of the science research lab he is in charge of. He tells him about the research they do in lasers, but Paul notices plutonium on the site and figures out that this is where they build nuclear bombs. What he doesn’t know is that Dr. Mathewson has successfully experimented with building the most powerful nuclear explosion ever and that he is working on a top secret project in this plant to make this bomb as part of the U.S. weapon’s system.

Perhaps bored, or eager to show off in front of his new girlfriend, the very attractive and mischievious Jenny (Nixon), or maybe he is genuinely concerned about the dangers a nuclear plant in his backyard poses for the community; in any case, Paul decides to sneak into the science lab with Jenny’s help during a thunder storm, by stealing John’s security clearance card he casually keeps in the glove compartment of his car. It was difficult to believe how their simple plan worked, but by pretending to have car trouble Jenny distracted the security guard while Paul gained entry to the building and dismantled the automatic alarms and worked all the control switches in the few minutes he would need to steal the plutonium. He does the job as efficiently as if he were a scientist who worked there for years and knew the lab like he did the palm of his hand. He gets the plutonium out of the building by out-thinking the guard and anticipating all his moves.

When at home, Paul goes to work immediately building a nuclear bomb in secret. Of course it is impossible to believe that in such a tight security complex holding plutonium for a top secret project, that they wouldn’t notice it missing right away and take action.

Paul’s plan is to enter the New York State science fair for high school students in New York City and instead of showing an experiment on hamsters as he announced, he will show his nuclear bomb.

Paul also builds a relationship with Mathewson based on their mutual interest in science, as Mathewson is shown in a very human light. He is someone who is primarily interested in chasing after his cute mom and who is working on the project not because he is a military advocate, but because it stimulates his intellect.

What works best in the film is the sweet relationship between Jenny and Paul, as she wants to write an expose on the nuclear plant for Rolling Stone. She tells Paul they can be like Woodward and Bernstein, whom he has never heard of. He wants to join the restrictive nuclear club of the U.S., Soviet Union, China, England, and France, which would now have to include Paul Stephens, the only private citizen entry. He assumes this will happen once he displays the bomb at the science fair and he also thinks…what could they do to me if I’m caught, I’m just a kid!

At the fair, the film becomes like a madcap thriller. But, unfortunately, only a few of Marshall Brickman’s funny pearls get into the script. He is Woody Allen’s former screenwriter. The one liner I liked the best, is when Lithgow is warning the kid about how tough the government agents could be when they grill you: “They’ll lock you in a room and then they’ll throw away the room.” Another great line comes from Collet, while realizing the danger there is in what he is doing, he tells Jenny: “You always have a future, even if you get killed.”

When Paul is stopped from exhibiting his experiment at the fair by the FBI he flees back to Ithaca, as the security forces led by Lieutenant Colonel Conroy (Mahoney) plan to kill him in order to get the bomb back. The tense scene back in the science lab consists of all the usual melodramatics seen in most typical action films. What makes this film a little bit different is that there have actually been seven fatalities at nuclear plants across America, even though this information is not widely known by the public. These incidents involved scientists carrying plutonium that discharged because the mixtures weren’t right. I use as my source of reference for this information, Dr. Michio Kaku, Professor of Theoretical Physics, at CCNY. There was something absorbing about these nuclear scientists doing their job. And it was, at least, not one of those awful summer teenager movies. In fact, the acting was quite good in spots, especially, by Christopher Collet; he convinced me he was a smart kid (though it was far-fetched to believe he could build a nuclear bomb), while John Lithgow convinced me that he was a scientist with a warm heart.