Palatable: The Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project (1986)
Directed by Marshall Brickman
Written by Marshall Brickman, Thomas Baum
Produced by Marshall Brickman, Jennifer Ogden, Bruce McNall, Roger Paradiso
Starring Christopher Collet, John Lithgow, Jill Eikenberry, Cynthia Nixon, John Mahoney, Abraham Unger, JD Cullum, Manny Jacobs, Charles Fields, Eric Hsiao, Robert Sean Leonard, David Quinn, Geoffrey Nauffts, Trey Cummins, Fred Melamed

“When the bomb is detonated in the middle of a city, it is as though a small piece of the sun has been instantly created.”

–Philip Morrison, 1945.12.6

Some opportunities are more obvious than others, swelled as their salience seems for pique, pressure and perspective. An upcoming annual science fair in his native New York and the courtship of his mother (Eikenberry) by a nuclear physicist (Lithgow) inspire a mischievous teen genius (Collet) to pilfer particularly potent plutonium from a newly-erected laboratory where the elder egghead’s employed as a supervisor. Late in the Cold War, what could be a more relevant and impressive project than a personal nuclear bomb? Woody Allen’s most conventionally inventive collaborator bravely bares both his flair and failings in this underrated science fiction, which compulsively supposes a potentially explosive confluence of adolescent recklessness and the intellectual allure of dangerous technologies. Brickman’s direction and script are equally fine, farced with witty dialogue and a satisfying romance between Collet’s whiz kid and his co-conspirator/emergent girlfriend (Nixon). Withal, a couple of Brickman’s and Baum’s best scenes are all but speechless, such as their protagonist’s infiltration of the laboratory and abstraction of radioactive specks suspended in gelled scintillant therein, executed with two Frisbees, an RC toy truck, and a catoptric array emplaced to direct the facility’s powerful laser beam. His bomb’s construction during a mandatory montage is fascinating enough to overcome the implausibility of its safety, and with quips and action aplenty, these proceedings are swiftly paced and tonally balanced. When a joint team of federal agents and military officials led by a suspicious Lieutenant Colonel (Mahoney) investigate Collet’s homemade doomsday device, that playful parity of humor and suspense is sustained surprisingly well to a slightly sloppy but charming conclusion. The main theme of Philippe Sarde’s jaunty score is derived equally from his autoplagiarized love theme in Le Choc and The First Noel, and subjected to numerous, cleverly melodic variations. For none of its few flaws did this ambitious feature deserve its critical and commercial failure.

Recommended for a double feature paired with WarGames.