Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. I’ll be shining a light in two directions — I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.
After taking a break last week while I gallivanted around Alaska, I’m back this week to highlight another movie that never quite got the love it deserves. This week’s film is a teen-led drama/comedy dealing with some unusual adult themes including nuclear annihilation.
He’s not truly to blame, but in a somewhat indirect way Matthew Broderick is responsible for both inspiring and dooming 1986’s The Manhattan Project. It took three years, but the film is clearly modeled on the success of Broderick’s WarGames as a smart, precocious, but otherwise normal teenager lets his curiosity and ego get him into potentially world-ending trouble. Its release though failed to find an audience in part because it was drowned out by the boisterous success of another film that opened that same week — Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
It’s a bit of a shame as director/co-writer Marshall Brickman’s film has a lot to offer fans of teen dramas, pro-science themes, and the eternally fantastic John Lithgow.
John Matthewson (Lithgow) is a scientist working in a nondescript lab in Ithaca, NY on an upgraded and further weaponized form of plutonium. He’s a bit of a dreamer and idealist among his peers and military overseers, but it’s a job. When a local realtor catches his eye he attempts to impress her son, Paul (Christopher Collet), by inviting the teen to the lab for a tour.
Paul has a mind for science, mechanics, and all manner of technical knowledge, and while he’s unintentionally cocky at times it’s fueled by a desire to always be learning. His tour of the lab tips him off to the weapons project they’re hiding, and with the help of his new lady friend, Jenny (Cynthia Nixon), he sneaks in, secures a sample of the plutonium, and proceeds to make his own nuclear bomb.
He has no intent on even arming it, let alone actually using it, but in his brain its creation will serve both as a brag-worthy accomplishment and a statement against secret nuclear programs in America’s backyard. Jenny’s all for it as she plans on writing an expose for the school paper. Paul’s plan goes smoothly, but the military catch on as the teenage pair head to New York City to show off their project at a national science fair competition. Soon they’re being interrogated, threatened, and chased back to where it all began leading to a tense standoff, a ticking bomb, and an important lesson for teens and adults alike.
While inspired by WarGames, Brickman’s film is a less thrilling and playful variation. There are instances of both, but they’re in smaller doses.
Thrills come mostly in the initial theft and in the third act showdown. The break-in is an elaborate and suspenseful affair, one wisely played without a musical score to heighten the tension, and while it’s occasionally implausible the set-pieces showcase an array of tools including Frisbees, remote-controlled cars, and good old-fashioned know-how.
The humor comes mostly from Paul whose dry wit and attitude offers up laughs even when he’s clearly nervous as hell. One of his character’s strengths is in the balance of his intelligence. He’s genius-level brilliant in the aforementioned subjects, but he’s clueless in more real-world matters. He doesn’t know Anne Frank or Woodward & Bernstein for example, and his grand plan rests on the incorrect assumption that the authorities couldn’t touch him because he’s a minor.
It’s a refreshing change from “smart” teens typically presented as all-knowing, and equally welcome is his normalcy in other respects including his friends, an interest in sports, and more. He’s no generic Hollywood geek and again, like Broderick’s trouble-maker in WarGames, he finds an ally and romantic interest in an equally curious girl.
Sollet does good work in the role, and he makes you wonder why he never quite caught on as an actor. He’s someone I always assume I’ve seen in far more than I have, but in reality, his film career rests almost solely on this, Sleepaway Camp, and Firstborn. I can only assume I’ve been subconsciously melding him with Chris Makepeace in my head. Lithgow is fun too in a rare “normal” role, and he charms both as a man trying to woo a woman and a man bonding with a fatherless boy.
Brickman is probably best known for writing four Woody Allen movies including Annie Hall and Manhattan, but this is his only real attempt at a thriller of sorts. There’s little wrong with the film — it could have used more weight behind its dramatic thrills perhaps — and he shows a strong eye (along with editor Nina Feinberg) in assembling suspenseful set-pieces and engaging montages, but its quieter, somewhat serious tone just failed to connect in the summer of Ferris.
You could say, as I assume entertainment journalists did back in the summer of 1986, that this movie about a bomb was itself one at the box-office. Instead, I’ll simply say it’s worth seeking out for a re-watch or first-time watch, and it’s even available on recently released Blu-ray.
Buy it: The Manhattan Project (1986) [Blu-ray]
Read more entries in last year’s The Essentials, and follow with Missed Connections — my appreciations of movies that failed to find an audience for one reason or another.
Related Topics: Missed Connections