The Manhattan Project (film)

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The Manhattan Project
The Manhattan Projectposter.jpg
Directed by Marshall Brickman
Produced by Marshall Brickman
Jennifer Ogden
Written by Thomas Baum
Marshall Brickman
Starring John Lithgow
Christopher Collet
Cynthia Nixon
Jill Eikenberry
John Mahoney
Richard Jenkins
Music by Philippe Sarde
Cinematography Billy Williams
Edited by Nina Feinberg
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates
June 13, 1986
Running time
117 min
Country United States
Language English
Budget $18,000,000[1]
Box office $3,900,000 (USA)[2]

The Manhattan Project is an American film, released in 1986.[3] Named after the World War II-era program, the plot revolves around a gifted high school student who decides to construct a nuclear bomb for a national science fair. The film's underlying theme involves the Cold War of the 1980s when governmental secrecy and mutual assured destruction were key political and military issues. It was directed by Marshall Brickman, based upon his screenplay co-written with Thomas Baum, and starred John Lithgow, Christopher Collet, John Mahoney, Jill Eikenberry and Cynthia Nixon. This was the first production from short-lived Gladden Entertainment.


Dr. John Mathewson (John Lithgow) discovers a new process for refining plutonium to purities greater than 99.997 percent. The United States government provides him a laboratory located near a suburban neighborhood in Ithaca, New York, masked as a medical company, Medatomics. Mathewson moves to Ithaca and meets real estate agent Elizabeth Stephens (Jill Eikenberry) while searching for an apartment. He attempts to win the affections of the single mom by inviting her teenage son Paul (Christopher Collet) to take a tour of Medatomics and see "one of the sexiest lasers in the entire free world."

Mathewson is confident in the lab's cover story but Paul, an unusually gifted student with a passion for science, becomes suspicious when he discovers a statistically impossible patch of five-leaf clover on the grounds. Paul and his aspiring journalist girlfriend, Jenny Anderman (Cynthia Nixon), decide to expose the weapons factory in dramatic fashion. Paul breaks into Medatomics and steals a container of plutonium. To obtain maximum publicity, Paul decides to build a nuclear bomb and enter it into the New York Science Fair. After convincing his mother and his school that his project is about hamsters bred in darkness, he begins research and construction of the nuclear device.

Mathewson and Medatomics discover that a container of plutonium has been replaced by a bottle of Alberto VO5 shampoo mixed with glitter. A military investigation team, led by Lt. Colonel Conroy (John Mahoney), arrives on the scene. Their investigation reveals that Paul is responsible for stealing the plutonium. Suspecting him of terrorism, the investigators search Paul's home and discover he and Jenny have left for the science fair.

The agents capture the couple in New York City and Mathewson, who feels personally responsible for the crisis, has a private talk with Paul. He tells Paul to just give the bomb to the agents or "they'll lock you in a room somewhere and throw away the room."[4] Several other participants at the science fair help Paul and Jenny escape custody and they become fugitives from the government.

In an effort to expose the lab, Paul hatches a plan to return the bomb on his own terms. Ensuring Jenny is a safe distance away, he calls the agents from a pay phone and walks into Medatomics with the bomb, while being surrounded by snipers and agents. During the standoff, negotiations stall and Paul arms the bomb. Mathewson, convinced that Paul is not an actual terrorist, attempts to intercede on his behalf.

Due to radiation from the plutonium, the bomb's timer suddenly activates on its own and begins to count down with increasing speed. Paul suggests taking the bomb to a quarry outside of the town, but Mathewson advises against it, telling Paul that if the bomb does go off, he'll get a good look at a "50 to 70 kiloton explosion". Paul then realizes that although he thought he was building a regular device, he didn't take into account the grade of plutonium being used. There is also no chance of an evacuation as the blast would destroy New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and parts of Canada. Desperate to contain the bomb, all sides put down their weapons and frantically work as a team to dismantle the device. They manage to disarm the bomb right as the timer reads 7:16:45, a reference to the first nuclear test on July 16, 1945.[5] After a brief moment of relief, Conroy decides to arrest Paul. Mathewson refuses to cooperate and opens the door to the lab, revealing a large crowd, including Jenny and the press. He says to the military, "We blew it." The film ends as Mathewson, Paul, Jenny and Elizabeth all depart the scene.



This movie is a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of nuclear weapon capability, a common theme of films dating back to Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.[6] The theme was especially prominent in the early 1980s with the debut of the television film The Day After and the motion pictures Testament and WarGames.[7]

The plot was influenced by the case of John Aristotle Phillips, a Princeton University undergraduate, who came to prominence in 1977 as the "A-Bomb Kid" for designing a nuclear weapon in a term paper using publicly available books and articles.[8]


$13 million of the budget - the actual cost of making the movie - was provided by Thorn-EMI Screen Entertainment. The rest of the budget consisted of consultancy fees for Gladden.[1]

The Manhattan Project was filmed in and around Rockland County, New York. Locations included Suffern High School, King's Daughters Library in Haverstraw and the Orchards of Conklin in Pomona.[5][9] The producers held an actual science fair at the New York Penta Hotel in which participants received $75, and utilized the set for filming. The film's director and screenplay co-writer Marshall Brickman had established his career as a co-writer on several Woody Allen films. The Manhattan Project was his third film as director, following the comedies Simon (1980) and Lovesick (1983).[10]


The film earned $2 million in film rentals to theaters in the United States during its first year of release.[11]

Brickman received the President's Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films for The Manhattan Project. Brickman would not direct again until the 2001 Showtime television movie Sister Mary Explains It All. In the role of Jenny, Cynthia Nixon was nominated for the Young Artist Award in the category of Exceptional Performance by a Young Actress, Supporting Role.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Andrew Yule, Hollywood a Go-Go: The True Story of the Cannon Film Empire, Sphere Books, 1987 p136
  2. ^ "Internet Movie Database, Box office/business for The Manhattan Project". June 13, 1986. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  3. ^ "Internet Movie Database, Release Dates for The Manhattan Project". June 13, 1986. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  4. ^ Brickman, Marshall (1984). The Manhattan Project (Screenplay). 
  5. ^ a b "Internet Movie Database, Trivia for The Manhattan Project". Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  6. ^ Scott, A. O. (June 13, 1986). "Vincent Canby, Film Review for The Manhattan Project". Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  7. ^ "Virus Horror! by Dan Dinello". August 9, 2001. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  8. ^ James Verini: Big Brother Inc.. Vanity Fair online, December 13, 2007
  9. ^ "Internet Movie Database, Filming locations for The Manhattan Project". Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  10. ^ "Internet Movie Database, Marshall Brickman". Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  11. ^ Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p237
  12. ^ "Internet Movie Database, Awards for The Manhattan Project". Retrieved 2007-08-17. 

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