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  Manhattan Project, The Generation Bomb
Year: 1986
Director: Marshall Brickman
Stars: John Lithgow, Christopher Collet, Cynthia Nixon, Jill Eikenberry, John Mahoney, Richard Jenkins, Sully Boyar, Timothy Carhart, Gregg Edelman, Abraham Unger, Robert Sean Leonard, David Quinn, Geoffrey Nauffts, Frank Ferrara, Jimmie Ray Weeks
Genre: Comedy, Thriller, Science FictionBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: John Mathewson (John Lithgow) is a scientist who has assisted in developing a high grade of plutonium destined for use in nuclear weapons, not that the American public have any idea about this, even though his lab is disguised as a medical research center situated near leafy New York suburbs - nobody outside of the government and the military have any idea of what is going on there. That is until John is seeing about accomodation in the area, and meets estate agent Elizabeth Stephens (Jill Eikenberry) who sets him up and also agrees to go out with him. Keen to impress her, John invites her budding boffin son Paul (Christopher Collet) for a guided tour of the lab...

Which would be his first mistake, and it's such a biggie that he spends the rest of the movie trying to live it down, never mind make up for it. The Manhattan Project received a mixed response back on its release mainly thanks to comparisons being made with the admittedly superior WarGames of then-recent vintage, and it has gone on to be seen as an example of the less realistic atomic bomb paranoia flicks of the eighties, of which there were plenty to choose from. But then again, there are those who viewed this as seriously underrated, and never given its proper due for the message to those who think mutually assured destruction was nothing to do with them.

In an intriguingly ambiguous setting up, teenage Paul is obviously a very bright kid, but he seeks to use his powers for, if not evil, then certainly misguided purposes. He thinks, after seeing this tour and working out what all the fancy lasers and whatnot are for, that the staff there and their bosses deserve a wake up call about the scandal of processing nuclear weapons material in the backyard of the public, not to mention the morality of making such incredibly devastating bombs in the first place. So in a sequence reminiscent of one of those heist movies which would be so prevalent in the following decade, Paul breaks in with the help of his aspiring journalist girlfriend Jenny (Cynthia Nixon).

Whereupon with master criminal precision he liberates a plastic bottle of plutonium and sets about making something of it in his mother's basement. Soon he has a bomb of his own, not thinking this through for all his cleverness, and believing that if he takes it to the national science fair he will be a shoo-in for the first prize as well as creating a publicity storm about the issues he feels relevant. But mostly making a fuss, for as we have seen in the early stages, just because he is one of the leads in a teen movie doesn't make him the hero, and the message of facing up to the responsibilities which accompany such destructive devices is never far away, perhaps rendering director Marshall Brickman in the role of bleeding heart.

But Brickman had proven his intelligence elsewhere in scripts for Woody Allen, and with his wry sense of humour well to the fore, even in the tense moments, casting teenagers as the inheritors of the atomic age problem was a canny decision. If Paul had been some loner, a crazed genius out to get revenge on society, it would be a lesser movie, but seeing as how it was the younger generation who adopted the troubles the older generation had established you could feel The Manhattan Project's champions were on to something when they looked past the implausibilities (this was a science fiction movie, after all) and took away the serious issues Brickman was bringing up. Late on in the story, as the homemade bomb is threatening millions, hardnosed military man John Mahoney accuses Mathewson of denying he is as much a part of potential mass murder on a global scale as those in the army or government, and it's as if a light goes on in the scientist's mind: "What was I thinking?" You might ponder that too if you allow the thoughts this provokes to run their course. Jaunty music by Philippe Sarde.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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