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Film / The Manhattan Project

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A 1986 American thriller film directed and co-written by Marshall Brickman and starring Christopher Collett, John Lithgow, John Mahoney (pre-Frasier), Jill Eikenberry, Cynthia Nixon (pre-Sex and the City), and Robert Sean Leonard.

Sprinkled with liberal dashes of Black Comedy and Gallows Humor plus just a touch of hard Science Fiction, it belongs to the same genre as WarGames, as both films feature bright high school kids who almost single-handedly cause an international nuclear crisis. Although less high-spirited and possibly more Anvilicious than WarGames, The Manhattan Project is good fun nonetheless.

Paul Stephens (Collett) is a Teen Genius and High-School Hustler in Ithaca, New York (the home of Cornell University). His divorced mother, Elizabeth (Eikenberry), begins dating nuclear scientist Dr. John Mathewson (Lithgow), who runs the lab at "Medatomics", ostensibly doing research in nuclear medicine. The Medatomics lab, however, is just a cover story for Mathewson's real work, which is refining plutonium to previously unheard-of purities for use in nuclear weapons.

Paul decides to steal plutonium from the lab and use it to build an atomic device, partly to Make A Point, but mostly Because He Can. Paul thinks, correctly, that he's got the most epic Science Fair project ever, and enters it in a Science Fair in New York City. But Dr. Mathewson and the US Army figure out what Paul is up to, they are not amused.

Has nothing to do with the Real Life project led by Robert Oppenheimer (for this see Fatman And Little Boy and Oppenheimer).

Provides examples of:

  • Bait-and-Switch Comment: A common cliché is the idea of locking someone in a room and throwing away the key. Here, Matthewson warns Paul that the government will take things even further: they will lock Paul in a room somewhere and throw away the room.
  • Blatant Lies: Dr. Mathewson's claim that the "green stuff" is actually just Americium-241. Paul figures out pretty quickly that it's actually plutonium, and that "Medatomics" is not really doing research in nuclear medicine.
  • The Caper: The plutonium theft is played thus.
  • Casual Danger Dialogue: Dr. Mathewson when the bomb suddenly begins counting down to detonation.
    Dr. Mathewson: Gentleman, we've got a little...wrinkle here.
  • Child Prodigy: A teenage boy is smart enough to break into a top secret nuclear production facility, steal plutonium and build an atomic bomb.
  • Chekhov's Frickin' Laser Beam: The Medatomics lab uses one to purify plutonium. Dr. Mathewson uses it to impress Paul by having it cut through a steel plate. Later, Paul uses it to cut a small hole in the wall to help him smuggle out the plutonium.
  • Couldn't Find a Lighter: John Lithgow lights a cigar with a laser that is strong enough to cut through steel and concrete.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Both Paul and Dr. Mathewson have their moments.
  • Decoy Damsel: The act Jenny puts on as she distracts the security guard with a self-inflicted flat tire while Paul pulls off his plutonium theft caper. Throughout the rest of the movie, she's actually quite sharp.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Paul's plan apparently didn't go beyond "win the science fair".
  • Disappeared Dad: Paul's dad left his family and is now in Saudi Arabia. Paul is understandably somewhat bitter: "I guess he didn't like being married anymore. Actually he's a brilliant architect; he's just kind of a shit in his personal life."
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Paul is having trouble figuring out the proper shape for his triggering charges. During a soccer match, he catches the ball and realizes the pentagon pattern used for the ball can be adapted for his bomb.
  • Exact Time to Failure: Double-subverted near the end of the movie – the homemade atomic bomb is accidentally armed and its display is turned on. It starts counting at 999 hours, so at first no one's worried about disarming it in time... until Paul realizes his timing mechanism is degrading and will speed up as it goes on. The double subversion comes into play when he and Dr. Mathewson eventually remember that the degradation will follow a perfect exponential curve, so they can calculate exactly how long it will take the timer to reach zero. (Which is much, much sooner than they'd like.)
  • Gallows Humor: A lot of it near the end while they try to disarm the bomb.
    • "I wouldn't bump it around like that if I were you. It might decide to fire just for spite."
    • "Are you telling me I'm going to die because some asshole didn't bring a pair of pliers?"
    • "Anyone want to make a bet?"
    • "You're a bright kid. You ought to do something with it." (as Paul just helped Mathewson calculate how long they have until the bomb goes off)
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy: The one night guard at the nuclear processing plant is easily distracted by Jenny feigning ignorance at changing a tire.
  • The Government: Most notably the U.S. Army, the FBI, and the Department of Energy.
  • Hand Wave: How Paul solved the problem of lens placement. It's unclear if he just made a guess based on the idea of a soccer-ball design, or if he actually used a supercomputer to compute it. In the former case, it almost certainly wouldn't have worked. In the latter, the scientists and technicians at the supercomputer facility would have known damn well what he was doing (simulating a fission chain-reaction) and would have turned him in.
  • Hard-Work Montage: Near the middle of the film, where slices of everyday life for Paul are intercut with him studying book after book on nuclear physics and building the bomb over a period of about four weeks.
  • High-School Hustler: Paul, who masterminds the break-in of a government facility so he can win a science fair.
  • I Can't Believe I'm Saying This: Paul to Jenny in the hotel room at the science fair.
    Paul: I never thought I'd say this to anybody, but I've got to go get the atomic bomb out of the car.
  • Instant Death Bullet: A sniper claims he can do this to both Paul and Dr. Mathewson if need be. The bomb activates on its own before he gets a chance to demonstrate.
  • Insufferable Genius: Paul could very well be the poster child for this.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Jenny is a would-be one. She's writing a story on Paul's building of the atomic bomb and wants to send it to Rolling Stone for publication.
  • It Was Here, I Swear!: The atomic bomb in the trunk of the car.
  • Jerkass: Paul, maybe. Seriously, the boy scout that created a home-made nuclear device in Real Life only did a reactor, not a bomb.
  • Just Eat Gilligan: Since the military knew that Paul had the bomb with him at the science fair, they should've been able to locate it just by sending agents out around the hotel armed with Geiger counters (especially since Paul didn't realize how pure the plutonium was, it would've been firing off a LOT of free particles).
  • Karma Houdini: Paul; he attempts to commit nuclear terrorism and gets away with it scot free. At worst, he may be grounded by his mother.
  • Keeping Secrets Sucks: By the end of the film, Dr. Mathewson has come around to this point of view, and plans to publish his work on purifying plutonium.
  • No Name Given: Actor Richard Jenkins receives billing only as "Radiation Controls Officer — Medatomic Labs". The character actually does have a name: Miles Wilson. Each part of his name, however, is only said once, and even then said in different parts of the movie. He is never actually referred to in the film as "the Radiation Controls Officer".
  • Pop-Cultural Osmosis Failure: More like a Historical Osmosis Failure, but:
    Jenny: This isn't funny. Do you know what this is like? It's like when you read about, I don't know, Anne Frank or something and you say to yourself, Jesus, why didn't they do something? The whole world is collapsing. They just sat around, life as usual, maybe it'll go away, but it never goes away; it only gets worse and nobody thinks about the future. What's the matter?
    Paul: Who's Anne Frank?
  • Product Placement:
    • Alberto's VO5 shampoo, which looks suspiciously like the liquid in which the highly purified plutonium is kept. Also, to a lesser extent, Duracell batteries.
    • And the remote-controlled car used to smuggle the plutonium out of the building, which is clearly labeled as a model of a Subaru Brat.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: The FBI Agent who says to Paul, "Sorry about before, kid. Nothing personal. Just doing my job." This is the same guy who was moments from shooting him in the head.
  • Reluctant Mad Scientist: Possibly Dr. Mathewson. He enjoys the challenge of purifying plutonium for its own sake, and does not seem to have an issue with his work being used to develop increasingly powerful nuclear weapons. Later on, Lt. Col. Conroy forces him to face the cold moral and ethical realities and responsibilities of what he does for a living.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Paul plans to unveil a fully working home-made 70 kiloton nuclear bomb at a New York science fair and win first prize. He doesn't expect any interference from the authorities whatsoever. Even when he's caught by government agents, he acts like it's a social call.
    Paul: Hi Dr. Mathewson!
    Mathewson: Paul, what the hell are you doing?
    Paul: Well I thought we might start with some kissing and then move into the fancy stuff.
    • Even after Paul is caught and is discussing his options with Mathewson, he says he will give the bomb to the government only after he wins the science fair with it, and he expects them to agree.
  • Science Fair: Paul says he's going to submit a project about raising a generation of hamsters in the dark to see if it improves their hearing. It's just a cover story for the real project—his atomic bomb. It's at the "45th National Science Fair" where Dr. Mathewson and The Government catch up to him.
  • Sickly Green Glow: The plutonium-laden liquid, which can pass for shampoo.
  • Shout-Out: A few of them to the real Manhattan Project, specifically the Trinity nuclear test:
    • Following the Trinity test, Manhattan Project scientist Kenneth Bainbridge said to colleague Robert Oppenheimer, "Now we are all sons of bitches." This quote is alluded to twice late in the film.
    Lt. Col. Conroy: [to Dr. Mathewson] You are what you are, doctor: a son of a bitch just like the rest of us. Now for God's sake take some responsibility and do what has to be done!
    Dr. Mathewson: [to Lt. Col. Conroy and his team] Hold it, gentlemen. Fellow sons of bitches, we're all what we are, right? So here's my responsible act...
    • When Lt. Col. Conroy is struggling to unscrew the cap to get the core out, Dr. Mathewson remarks, "That's funny. The same thing happened at the Trinity test 40 years ago. The core got stuck halfway in while they were trying to insert it."
    • Right before settling a Wire Dilemma, Mathewson asks, "Anyone want to make a bet?" In a real-life incident of Gallows Humor at the Trinity test, a number of scientists wagered on exactly how powerful the explosion would be. Wagers ranged from a dud, to 18 kilotons (the winning wager by physicist I.I. Rabi), to destruction of the entire state of New Mexico, to ignition of the atmosphere and the incineration of the entire surface of the Earth.
    • A digital display specifically, the timer on Paul's bomb at the moment it is defused reads 7:16:45. The Trinity test occurred on July 16, 1945.
    • There are also Shout Outs to two other movies dealing with the threat of nuclear weapons:
      • The Day The Earth Stood Still (the 1951 original) is playing on the TV while Paul and Jenny are planning the plutonium theft.
      • When Paul figures out that Dr. Mathewson helps build nuclear weapons, he starts referring to the scientist as "Dr. Strangelove" behind his back.
  • Spiritual Successor: Arguably to WarGames.
  • Stating the Simple Solution: When the bomb is accidentally activated, Paul suggests just dumping it in an open field and letting it go off. Dr. Mathewson has to explain to him that he's vastly underestimated the destructive potential of the weapon he's built.
  • Tailor-Made Prison: Invoked by Mathewson as the potential consequences of Paul's pet project.
    Mathewson: They don't care how old you are, how cute you are. They're gorillas; they can hurt you. Don't you get it? You try to tough it out with them, they'll lock you in a room somewhere and throw away the room.
  • Teacher's Pet: Roland, which is presumably why Paul makes him the Butt-Monkey of the nitrogen triiodide prank.
  • Teen Genius: Definitely Paul. Maybe Roland. Likely the four geeks at the science fair, too.
  • Time Bomb: Paul's atomic bomb has a digital timer.
  • Too Clever by Half: Both Paul and Mathewson are guilty of this. Paul for building a nuke without thinking too deeply about the consequences of his project, and Mathewson for being too busy being proud of his plutonium production process to think of the wider ramifications of his work.
  • Truth Serum: The military administers some to Paul to "help him remember" after the It Was Here, I Swear! incident.
  • Villain Protagonist: Paul is a kid who thinks pranking others with explosives and being a nuclear terrorist to get his way is the way he should do things.
  • Wire Dilemma: Subverted; when disarming the bomb, Paul's design necessitates severing all six wires simultaneously, since the other five could set off their triggering charges prematurely if they tried to do it one at a time. The problem is, there's only 5 pairs of wire cutters.