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Plot Details: This Review Reveals Minor Details About the Plot.

Deadly Game

The Manhattan Project

Plot Overview

To eerie background music, some scientists begin a lab experiment: A green key is turned in an inter­lock, then to some whirring back­ground sounds they proceed from Standby to Ready to Start (CAUTION MAGNET ON). At the Federal Universities High Energy Physics Project, Cambridge, Mass., the Pu-239 in the reaction vessel is zapped by the laser at increased power level to convert it into its liquid metallic state. “It's the purest plutonium in the universe,” remarks Dr John Mathewson (John Lithgow) in his white lab coat. They measure it at 99.997% pure.

The visiting brass are impressed. “Set him up with whatever he needs, … some­place quiet away from prying eyes, … and keep an eye on him,” the top guy tells his under­lings. To some more eerie music, we follow a convoy of three big rigs to the turn­off for: ITHACA NEXT RIGHT.

Next we are introduced to local science nerd kid 17-year-old Paul Stephens (Christopher Collet) and his real estate agent mother Elizabeth Stephens (Jill Eikenberry). Dr Mathewson being new in town, not knowing anybody, and being a push­over (“I'm easy”) hits on his pretty real estate agent and bribes her into a date by offering to give her son a tour of a sexy laser facility, “laser heaven.” Paul who has been spying on his mom & her new beau, doesn't like being condescended to. He picks up on the mutant flora outside MEDATOMICS and spots the plutonium on his tour. He scopes out its overly centralized security. He manages to lift the access card of Dr “I'm easy” Mathewson and with the help of his girl­friend Jenny Anderman (Cynthia Nixon) distracting the guard manning the security station (“I'd rather have one good dog than all that fancy equipment”), breaks into the place, under cover of a stormy night.

Paul now having the weapons grade plutonium in hand, his girlfriend wants to blow the whistle on the supposed nuclear medical research facility in town by telling someone and publishing it in the school paper. Paul, how­ever, figures nobody will be impressed with some kids stealing stuff … unless, “I have another thought,” he tells her. To his explanation she replies, “Paul, that's very sick.”

The facility is missing enough plutonium they have to report it, which brings in the military, the FBI and NEST knocking at Paul's door, but Paul is upstate entering his project at the science fair. On the phone his mom asks him, “Paul, did you build an atomic bomb?” to which he replies, “Only a little one.” By the time the suits have him cornered, other curious jealous entrants in the fair have made off with Paul's project not knowing (or believing) what it was.

I remember high school physics lab where we had such a devil of a time trying to secure results, that we expected our experiments to fail. One experimenter was heard to remark, “Some­thing's wrong! This is working.” In “The Manhattan Project” once the device is constructed and armed, you don't want it to suddenly start working with the timer counting down.


“The Manhattan Project” is a dandy illustration of a small section of Ecclesiastes in the Bible: (Eccl. 4:7-8)

Then I returned, and I saw vanity under the sun. There is one alone, and there is not a second; yea, he hath neither child nor brother: yet is there no end of all his labour; neither is his eye satisfied with riches; neither saith he, For whom do I labour, and bereave my soul of good? This is also vanity, yea, it is a sore travail.

Paul's father is an architect—a good one at that—but although he is brilliant technically, he is severely lacking in social skills, so he and Paul's mom are separated and the father is working over­seas with nary a regard for his family. Paul does not take after him in that respect, (Eccl. 4:9-12):

Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall with­stand him; and a three­fold cord is not quickly broken.

Paul pairs up with his girl­friend Jenny who's got his back. They lay their heads on each other's shoulder while they're on the run. And when they manage to con­script Dr “I'm easy” Mathewson to their side, the three of them offer serious resistance to the authorities.

Paul explains to Jenny that the bomb is a device, just as a “toaster” is a manufactured device. It's the fissile material, the Pu-239, that makes it nuclear. For a school science project, I once made a tunnel diode radio receiver, back in the day when that semi­conductor was experimental magic, but my dad working for The Bell Tele­phone Co. was able to procure one for me through his contact at Bell Labs. The tuner and the audio amp were just dressings on my project. Now consider, (Eccl. 4:13-14):

Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished. For out of prison he cometh to reign; whereas also he that is born in his kingdom becometh poor.

The point is that everybody, even a king, needs to make alliances to succeed; he's not sovereign in a vacuum. In this movie the Pu-239 had to literally be broken out of a secure facility in a come-to-daddy sequence, to reign at a science fair. But for that pure stuff Paul substi­tuted like-colored goo shampoo in Lot 13, the poorest radio­active material in the universe (“It's completely flat.”) The point is the brass did not have control. The military that was trying to operate in secret apart from any over­sight was screwed over by a smart kid. He figured if caught he'd skate for being under­age, but it's doubt­ful that applies to treason. And for the military men to cover for him, they'd be guilty of mis­prision of treason. So he is more likely to be eliminated as a “loose end.” That's why he needed his two allies.

Production Values

“The Manhattan Project” (1986) was directed by Marshall Brickman. It was written by Marshall Brickman and Thomas Baum. It stars John Lithgow, Chris­topher Collet, Richard Council, Jill Eiken­berry, and Cynthia Nixon. The acting was credible.

The writers did their home­work. They created a scientific hobbyist of a kid whose family loves to read and who provided the role models (as architect and real estate agent) for completing complex projects. He's a guy who can think out­side the box and is not afraid to take risks. Conventional wisdom has it that it takes the resources of a state, a nation, to construct a working atomic bomb, even if the fissile material is itself avail­able. We are asked to believe some kid could do it in his garage, but we are shown glimpses of his research and the steps he took to construct it, so we are prepared to suspend disbelief that the ON switch of a Volks­wagen key can really turn on a people's bomb.

This film is rated PG-13. The eerie introductory music was by Philippe Sarde, and the grand finish was courtesy L'Orchestre de Paris, orchestrated by Bill Byers. The science projects and kids in the back­ground fair scenes were actual NYC middle school students with their projects.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

“The Manhattan Project” was a slow going human interest story until a tense ending. The technical detail was good. It was some­what strong on social commentary. I rate it a solid ‘C’.

Movie Ratings

Action factor: Decent action scenes. Suitability for Children: Suitable for children 13+ years. Video Occasion: Good for Groups. Special effects: Well done special effects. Suspense: A few suspenseful moments. Overall product rating: three stars out of five.