The Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project. Gladden Entertainment 1986.

Before watching the movie:

I think this is set contemporary (contemporarily set?), but it’s hard to tell. The most obvious difference in fashion between the 50s and 80s is in hairstyles, and a production could possibly overlook them.

This is listed as sci-fi, but it’s in that area of sci-fi that concerns such contemporary technology that I don’t really consider it so. The suspension of disbelief involved in “high school student steals plutonium from a shady lab and builds a nuclear bomb” has nothing to do with the technology so much as with the security procedures being circumvented. The Andromeda Strain is sci-fi so diamond-hard it plays as a pathological procedural, this is just a thriller.

After watching the movie:

When the US government creates a laboratory producing extremely high-purity plutonium in Ithaca, New York, the head of the project, Dr. John Matthewson, takes a romantic interest in his real estate agent and tries to curry favor by being chummy with her science-minded son Paul. Paul is a prankster, brilliant in physics and chemistry. John invites Paul to tour the lab, but Paul sees straight through the cover story for it and recognizes the refined plutonium. Furious about the secret nuclear operations going on in town, Paul talks his girlfriend Jenny into helping him steal some plutonium from the lab so she can expose them in the school paper. Then Paul has an idea for how to make the story better: he’ll use the stolen plutonium to build a nuclear bomb and enter it in the state science fair. But when the missing container is discovered and the trail leads back to Paul, the government goes on the hunt for a teenaged terrorist.

I hesitate to call this hyperrealist when Bubble exists (to demonstrate why actual hyperrealism is unwatchable), but the pitch is very grounded, and does come off like a thought piece on what would happen if a high schooler were able to build a nuclear weapon. Paul is no wunderkind, he’s just a cocky kid with a  talent in one area. Jenny, a humanities girl, is constantly making references that go over his head. It strikes me as perhaps not coincidental that John Lithgow performed in at least two movies visualizing what if nuclear crises happened to ordinary people, including the more notable The Day After.

I think the disconnect between the small town people and the G-Men who have to view the world in worst cases is the main point being made, but the themes take a back seat to the prankster turned whistleblower turned fugitive plot. The closest it comes to discussing anything is a tense conversation about Mutually Assured Destruction that couldn’t have even been saying anything new at the time, and is very, very obvious now.

It’s unfortunate that this made less than a quarter of its budget back, but I can see why. A lot of the money went to realizing the scientific equipment, which does a great deal to make the action believable, but it’s just not an 18 million dollar story. It’s an intimate discussion of science, politics, and ethics. It’s not a moneymaker, and it’s not even award bait. It’s just a thought experiment, with the Eastern Seaboard on the line.

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