The Manhattan Project (1986)

Speak “friend” and build an atomic bomb with a precocious genius in this 1986 movie that, from the poster, looks like a paranoia thriller–and it almost is! Or it is, partly. But yeah this is another Saturday TV matinee movie from my youth and it’s kinda good.

There is a lot more to unpack in this movie than the average matinee. There’s definitely some interesting attitudes towards things in the movie. Paul is very obviously down on smoking. In ’86 smoking on airplanes was still a thing. There were smoking sections in restaurants. It wasn’t until the late 90’s and early 2000’s that smoking in public areas really started to go away but this movie was already taking that stance. It’s curious to see this overt anti-smoking protagonist in a movie as early as 1986 as the next time I can think of an example of this it’s in Attack of the Clones (2000-whatever) where Kenobi is offered, and declines, a Death Stick. Thinking back on it, it seems foreign, but cigarettes and cigarette advertisements were everywhere. Literally and figuratively. NASCAR, every damned magazine, bus stops, grocery stores, the whole nine. I really need to think back on it because there has been legislation limiting the avenues for advertisement of cigarettes for a few years now and, honestly, seeing a cigarette ad in 2021 would be somewhat of a shock to me.

Paul is also turbo judgy about alcohol. Like damn kid, did a glass of wine kick your dog? It is a very weird situation though because Paul is legit 17 years old according to what I’ve seen and while there were places that still had a drinking age of 18 in the US around that time New York state was decidedly not one of them. New York state had been raised to 19 in 1982ish (maybe ’83 i can’t find the tab–sue me). Then, in 1985, it was raised to 21 which is just the normal age in the U.S. at this point in time. Matthewson is out with Elizabeth and Paul and it is just very weird that Paul has a glass of wine poured out for him. He’s really not receptive to Matthewson’s attempt to get him and his mom to drink more and I think I just cracked the code on that scene. Paul is a bit of a dick when he says, “I don’t drink wine. It impairs my judgement.” That was actually aimed at his mom who had just said her “head was spinning” and I guess is aimed at Matthewson, as well, because of the implication of getting his mom sauced up to then, later, smash. Yeah, that’s probably it, and I’m just bad at picking up on some things but, also, what the hell is Paul doing with a glass of wine? He’s 17. The hell is going on here?

The scene with the other science nerds mounting a rescue of Paul and Jenny against actual trained killers is really just sublime 80’s adolescent adventure fantasy. They have synchronized watches. It’s everything a kid could want with just that much more heart than you expect. They start out adversarial and, through their desire to learn about and sabotage Paul, learn about the military’s detainment of Paul and Jenny and ultimate band together to help their fellow nerd aside from actually stealing an atomic bomb so that it can’t be collected by The Government. Sometimes you really need to think these things through but the 80’s was not one of those times–let’s do some reckless shit! It’s that optimistic outlook shining through, again.

Let me also talk about why you should never try to build an atomic bomb and, especially, not using this movie as a template. Everyone is just walking around like “it’s hot” with geiger counters popping off. That’s bad. That’s very bad. All of those 5-leaf clovers? Very bad. That’s cancer and death bad. Using a clear sports water bottle to hold the most plutonium that ever plutoniumed in the history of plutonium is very ill-advised. Outside of the suspension of disbelief that this movie requires that kid would be dead and everyone he knew would maybe be dead, too. It’s real bad. I like that they use the cool plastic box with the gloves, though. That’s one of my favorite things ever. I want a media blasting station just so I can use the gloves with the thing in the box. And also sandblast things. But I don’t work on things that require sandblasting and, subsequently, powder coating so it would be a rather pointless and cosmetic purchase that would ultimately be more trouble, to me, than it’s worth. There was a time where I seriously considered going down this route, though, and it’s a really badass accessory to metal fabrication professionally, or as a hobby. Anyway, don’t do anything that Paul does in this movie. Like, not a goddamn thing. It’s all pretty much things that should not be done in the interest of life and limb.

Speaking of green goop, bringing up Alberto VO5 was very good. I miss those days of endless shampoo and hair product commercials. Alberto VO5, Vidal Sassoon, and Samy. Now I know most of you have no idea who Samy is but Samy, celebrity hair stylist, was steady on TV in the South Florida market at this time. I’ve been looking for a commercial from that era and I can’t actually find one but just know that Samy was the stylist for two First Ladies among other famous people. His commercials really worked, too, because he always signed off with his catch phrase, «¡Si tu luces bien, yo luzco mejor!» and that is burned, indelibly, in my brain alongside the theme song for “Dos Mujeres, Un Camino”, Sabado Gigante, and Walter Mercado. I used the chevrons because that’s a fun relic of older books–Spanish, especially in the Americas and even more especially on the Internet, seems to have fully adopted the double quotes used regularly in English. Additionally, the upside-down antecedent punctuation has also mostly gone away. It’s just a pain in the ass to type. But that’s a great catchphrase. “If you look good, I look better!” would be the direct translation but the implication here is “If you look good, that makes me look better.” with the implication that your radiant appearance is advertising for his salon and hair products. Samy is still out there–still going. Living the dream.

I also realized that I misnamed “The Day The Earth Stood Still” but I also recorded this quite late at night and in parts so I’m sure that wasn’t the only thing I slightly flubbed .The movie is pretty great though and is one of the earlier “classic” science fiction movies. It is a very legitimate allegory for nuclear weapons and MAD. This film is in the Library of Congress and it should be. I didn’t see the remake, actually, but the 1951 version is very watchable IMO. The original Ocean’s Eleven, on the other hand, is not as good as the remake. The remake really streamlines and focuses everyone and everything in the movie. They legit use guns in the original. Chi McBride’s character in Gone in 60 Seconds (2001) got it right when he said “Any asshole can pull a gun on somebody!” It really undercuts the whole thesis of the movie that these are the heist guys. These are the people could steal anything. Anyway.

Above is “The Writer Speaks: Marshall Brickman”. It spends a lot of time talking about Marshall himself–his life and who he is as a person. Then they spend a decent amount of time on other movies and, while that’s super fun, we do only get like 3 or 4 minutes on The Manhattan Project. Again, this movie didn’t land opening weekend and just disappeared is what it feels like. Roger Ebert gave this movie a 4/4 and I can get behind that. I may have undersold the movie a little bit–I do like it and I think it’s good. I don’t think it will change anyone’s life in 2021 but, in 1986, this might very well have been a 4/4 movie (indeed it was to at least some people–Roger Ebert himself said so). It’s really interesting to see how it has fallen away from popular thought but I think it might be streaming on HBO Max at the moment so go ahead and check it out.

As always you can reach out to me @coolmarkd on Twitter with any questions, comments, or interesting insights.