Marshall Brickman’s The Manhattan Project isn’t a typical "teen spy" kind of movie. It’s not about a teenage James Bond kind of spy, like Alex Rider or the Richard Greico character in If Looks Could Kill. No, Paul Stephens (Christopher Collet), the hero of The Manhattan Project is a teenage atom spy. As in the Rosenberg sort. As in someone who steals nuclear secrets (or material) from the United States government. As in what we would probably call today a terrorist. Yes, it’s a very unique fantasy: the teen terrorist genre. It’s a weird movie. But it’s not bad!
Paul is a high school science wiz. And, like most teenage boys with scientific minds, his seems to turn frequently toward exploding stuff. When we first meet him, he’s just created an Ammonia Tri-Iodide explosive (a recipe right out of the Anarchist Cookbook), a substance that blows up on contact. And what does he use it for? To play a prank on the class prat, much to the delight of fellow students (and future TV stars) Cynthia Nixon and Robert Sean Leonard. Even the teacher seems to find it amusing, and nobody chastises him for dabbling in bomb-making. So he seems to have experienced a pretty permissive upbringing, which goes a long way in explaining his actions to follow.
Paul is a bright boy, and he spots plutonium right away when his mom’s new suitor, Dr. Mathewson (John Lithgow), gives him a tour of the (secret) lab where he works. Paul then proves his suspicions to himself and his girlfriend, Jenny (Nixon), when he discovers a plethora of five-leaf clovers growing outside the facility, a rare mutation. Paul is mad that there’s a secret nuclear facility in his town, and convinces aspiring journalist Jenny to help him break into the lab to expose it. In an elaborate (and mostly silent, Rififi-style) break-in sequence, Paul scrambles the closed-circuit cameras, tricks the motion detectors, uses a robot arm to steal a canister of translucent green plutonium and replace it with Prell, drills a hole in the wall with a powerful laser beam and guides the plutonium around the radiation detectors on the back of a remote-control truck while Jenny distracts the only two guards. It’s quite a scene, and it fulfills a number of teenage boy heist fantasies. (I know it wasn’t just me who dreamed of such hijinks!)
So he’s got the plutonium, he’s proved his point, Jenny can write her story and expose the whole thing, right? Wrong! Paul decides (and somehow convinces his generally more practical girlfriend) that it would be better for him to use the plutonium to build a nuclear bomb, and then expose the operation! Basically, he just wants to prove that he can do it. But by the time the big science fair rolls around, the government’s onto him and the army and the FBI are on his trail. Paul becomes a fugitive. A desperate fugitive with a working A-bomb, which he decides to arm in order to put himself in a better bargaining position during the final showdown in the lab. His very own "mutually-assured destruction" policy... and, frankly, an act of terrorism. In the end, you’re supposed to be rooting against the FBI snipers trying to prevent mass destruction and for the kid with his finger on the trigger. The Manhattan Project could never be made today! (Not only does the teen hero engage in terrorism; his [also teenage] girlfriend actually smokes in one scene! See what I mean? It could never be made today!)
But despite its extraordinary premise, its hero’s shaky motivation (he really built that bomb just because he could?) and its questionable moral, The Manhattan Project is a pretty awesome kid’s movie. I don’t know how I never saw it growing up in the 80s; I would have loved it as a kid. As I said before, it’s complete boy’s wish fulfillment, with a young hero who not only breaks into secure facilities and builds the ultimate bomb, but wields the mightiest power in the universe, a power that’s wholly the domain of grown-ups in real life.
It presents a very realistic (aside from the afore-mentioned permissive-ness) vision of 80s suburbia and of childhood, reminiscent of Spielberg’s. In fact, the story is really "E.T. with a bomb." And it also presents a fairly believable teenage relationship between Paul and Jenny, a rarity in this sort of 80s teen movie. Cynthia Nixon is fantastic, and very cute, too. Had I seen this as a kid, I’ve no doubt I would have developed a crush on her big enough to make me actually watch an episode of Sex In the City by choice when I grew up! The acting, in fact, is solid all around. Collet makes an appealing lead (wonder where he disappeared to), Jill Eikenberry is a good single mom in the Dee Wallace vein, and John Lithgow and a pre-Frasier John Mahoney (as the Army colonel leading the chase) both play up the fact that there are no real bad guys in the movie, just adults who make national security decisions that a kid can’t really understand. Like Spielberg’s 80s movies as opposed to John Hughes’s, it’s surprisingly undated with regards to hair and fashions, so that’s also a factor in how well it holds up.
Lionsgate’s new Special Edition DVD offers several bells and whistles. Brickman provides a commentary, but sadly it’s one of the worst I’ve ever heard. He spends a lot of time saying "I don’t know what to say," or, "You probably want me to say something here..." or saying nothing at all. A moderator occasionally prods him, but rarely with much success. At one point the affably self-conscious Brickman asks him, "Do [other] people freeze like I’m freezing?" Making matters worse, he doesn’t seem to remember a lot about the production. When the slightly embarrassed-sounding moderator helpfully asks him if being a father had any bearing on how he worked with or presented children in his film, the director says no, because he wasn’t a father yet at that point. But apparently he’s temporarily forgotten his daughter, who he later says visited the set! We do get occasional nuggets like the fact that they made the translucent green "plutonium" by emptying the glowing green liquid out of hundreds of glowsticks, and later by actually using the shampoo Paul switches it for. But it’s not really worth investing much time in this track just to hear that stuff. Still, Lionsgate deserves credit for including it, no matter how lousy it turned out. It's still an extra.
Fortunately, Brickman is much more eloquent in the making-of featurette, offering interesting insight into his writing process, which he says was most inspired by Bach. (He gives a very good explanation of that seemingly peculiar statement.) He also dishes a bit of behind-the-scenes studio gossip, and we’re treated to some nice on-set footage. Special effects supervisor Bran Ferren also contributes, and shares how he created the lab facility out of used parts sold off by Los Alamos! Ferren is also all over the other featurette, "Homemade Apocalypse," which focuses on creating a realistic nuke. Brickman is a lot more impassioned over how accurate their technology was than he is over his filmmaking, but Ferren sums it up nicely by saying that he didn’t feel the need to design a bomb that would actually work, just one close enough that the military in the movie would believe that it worked. That really highlights the MacGuffin nature of the bomb; it’s ultimately irrelevant to the plot whether or not it’s actually real! But if you can pull it off, why not make E.T. with a bomb?