12 February 2009

Movielog, The Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project, 1986
Written by Marshall Brickman and Thomas Baum
Directed by Marshall Brickman
117 minutes

Mom: Paul, did you build an atomic bomb?
Paul: Only a little one.

And yeah, he does. There was a mini-boom of "genius movies" after Wargames in 1983, movies in which teenage geniuses did really cool stuff in their bedrooms or garages or basements because they were really smart. The Manhattan Project isn't as good as Wargames or Real Genius, but it's comfortably in the same territory as a story about a brilliant kid who happens upon a secret weapons lab and decides to make an atomic bomb, partly as a political statement but mostly just because he can.

I have a bit of a head start on most viewers because I have read Mushroom: The Story of the A-bomb Kid by John Aristotle Phillips. Mushroom is the story of an undergraduate at Princeton who designed (note: designed, not built) what is said to be a working atomic bomb in 1977. The physics of an explosion trigger are fairly straightforward; the engineering of such a thing are a holy bitch and a half and require highly specialized materials that most of us couldn't get ahold of if we tried. That a kid could figure out how to make an atomic bomb from spare parts is pretty straightforward, that one could actually make one in secret with materials from a well-stocked high school physics lab is fanciful in the extreme.

But there's a difference, I think, between plausibility and realism. The screenplay for The Manhattan Project starts with the idea that a kid might build an atomic bomb, and then asks itself what kind of kid might be able to accomplish such a task. The answer: a brilliant seventeen-year-old who sleeps only a couple of hours a night in upstate New York. Despite his genius, he's a bit of a slacker who would rather use his brain to play pranks on his classmates and impress his girlfriend than do classwork. So yeah, he's an unrealistically bright character, but once you posit his existence there isn't much in The Manhattan Project that doesn't follow.

Consider the girlfriend Jenny. She's played by a fresh-faced Cynthia Nixon (Robert Sean Leonard, Dr. Wilson from House, M.D. is also present as a classmate) as a girl very nearly as smart as Our Hero Paul (Christopher Collet, who as near as I can determine went on to do nothing else of any significance with regard to film acting). Jenny's not a science buff but a budding journalist whose references to Anne Frank and Woodward and Bernstein are missed by the oblivious Paul. The two have an easy and fun relationship that is portrayed quickly and tightly -- this is not a teenage romance but a thriller-with-a-twist.

John Lithgow is an atomic scientist who as the film opens has just developed a revolutionary new method for purifying plutonium, producing ultra-pure yields. When he moves into a research lab in Ithaca (supposedly making radioactive materials for medical treatments) he falls for his real estate agent, Elizabeth Stephens, who is also the protagonist's mom. When Lithgow spies a Scientific American with a cover story on lasers in the young man's arms, he offers to take the boy to see "the sexiest laser in the world" in exchange for a date with the mother. But Lithgow underestimates Paul's intelligence, for when the young man sees the lab he very quickly figures out what is really being done there.

What follows is an extended sequence in which Paul and Jenny steal a large batch of plutonium from the lab. This is probably the least plausible sequence in the film, although among the most entertaining, as the heist mini-movie follows all-too-well the well-trod cliches of the eighties heist sequence, although some of the techniques that Paul uses to achieve his goal are clever and resourceful. It's a fun lighthearted sequence, but narratively it probably would have worked better to just have Paul get the professor to let him back in the lab and sneak a sample out than this kind of elaborate sequence.

Anyway. Once Paul has the nuclear material he does the research necessary to make the bomb. The film shows this work in some level of detail (although of course the specifics are obscured), trusting the audience to follow the general idea of how Paul manages to make a bomb even if they don't get every detail. In general the science and engineering in the movie is accurate, much more so than in many other SF and SF-tinged movies, enough so that even I didn't really mind the minor glitches that popped up here and there. (For an example of the latter, the resulting atomic bomb is described as a 50-kiloton bomb that would take out several states, while the reality is that 50 kilotons is only about two-and-a-half times the size of the bomb as the one that took out Hiroshima. Maybe they meant megatons.)

The Manhattan Project is actually generally smart about the details. When Lithgow discovers that his lab has been breeched, he pretty much immediately figures out how it happened, and his emotional response is a respect for the boy's intelligence rather than a more stereotypical anger response. When the crisis point comes towards the end of the movie, it is Lithgow who is on some level siding with the kid, trying to protect him and defend him, where in a lesser movie he would be a much more identifiable villain. Co-writer and director Marshall Brickman was a colleague of Woody Allen who co-wrote Annie Hall, and that grasp of character shines through this film even in its more pedestrian moments.

It isn't all roses, however. Some of the plot points of The Manhattan Project are implausible or simplistic, but that's somewhat forgivable given the potential audience for the film. The score, well, it isn't quite as bad as the Shawshank 80's-style montage, but it's pretty close, nearly ruining some sequences and in general keeping the movie from the kind of moral ambiguity that it wants to have. This was likely much less noticeable upon the time of original release when nearly every movie had a similar score, but for modern audiences this is going to be something of a sore point.

So, not perfect by any means, this film is nonetheless a fun movie that still manages to give a lesson or two on nuclear proliferation along the way. The performances are pretty good and generally fit the material well, and for me it was worth seeing just to see scientific knowledge respected so heavily in a movie. If I'd seen this when I was twelve instead of twenty-eight it would have been one of my all-time favorite movies, and I'd think of it today as a childhood favorite. Parents of nerdy children could do a lot worse than shoving a DVD of The Manhattan Project in their hands.

Rating: B

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