Saturday, July 13, 2013

Day One Hundred and Ninety-four - The Manhattan Project, "Remember the Cold War of the 80's... it remembers you."

If you remember the 80's like I do, you remember the yuppie paranoia of the end of the Cold War. It wasn't the biting fear the Bay of Pigs, but there was still plenty of scapegoating features that painted us as one minute from the brink... a picture not all that dissimilar to the one that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons painted for us in Watchmen.

I remember WarGames and Miracle Mile and Red Dawn... I remember The Manhattan Project.

While having very little to do with the Soviet Union, nevertheless The Manhattan project had quite a bit to do with Cold War paranoia and pretty much everything to do with Nuclear Deterrence and Brinksmanship.

Set it upstate New York where an affable scientist, John Mathewson (John Lithgow), relocates his team of nuclear engineers to create a plutonium production facility, TMP mostly follows the teenager he comes to know while courting his mother.

The boy, Paul (Christopher Collet), is quite intelligent, assertive, and a nefarious prankster. While trying to win him over, Mathewson gives Paul a tour of the facility, passing off all the nuclear material as merely medical production. This, of course, doesn't fool Paul who hatches a plan with his would be girlfriend, Jenny (Cynthia Nixon), to swipe some as proof that the government plopped a nuclear facility in the middle of New York State with no oversight or warning.

The theft goes off without a hitch, switching shampoo for the plutonium slurry, and the rest of the film is Paul and Jenny making a bomb (I know, what a quick jump from exposing the government to actual Mad Science!) and taking it to be entered in the National Science Fair, then escaping when the feds close in and try to take the bomb away, leading to a climax defusing and a schmaltzy happy ending.

There's a lot that's completely weak about this film... for one thing that a nuclear facility in the heart of the cold war isn't being guarded by at least a platoon of soldiers checking and double checking everything... every hour on the hour.

For another, all the exposure Paul, et al, go through during the course of the film should've had them all flat on their backs, losing hair, and coughing up blood. It's one thing to occasionally hint at the contamination with Geiger counters and glib remarks, it's quite another to contradict it by shoving one in the face of two people in constant, unshielded contact with plutonium and get nary a trace just because it's plot convenient.

I mean, really... "just background radiation?" You've got to be kidding me.

Science aside, there's also very little in the way of chemistry... emotional chemistry between any of the leads. While I actually believed Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy and their mostly tame courtship in WarGames, I can't say the same here whether it's Lithgow and Jill Eikenberry or Collet and Nixon.

I also cannot believe the reactions of anyone in the staff or armed forces. As much as I like John Mahoney, his angry face had nothing on Barry Corbin.

It should be noted that there's a very small part for Robert Sean Leonard here as one of Paul and Jenny's school friends, but it's nothing all that special.

While it's not the most sterling example of a message movie, at the very least it tries to lead you to a few good ones by showing clips from tremendous films concerning the subject like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Dr.Strangelove. It feels a little like cheating, but it's still a nice nod.

I think it's decent enough for starting a discussion with your kids about the feeling of that era, but there are much better examples out there... like WarGames, actually... or, if you want to go back a generation, Dr.Strangelove.

Until tomorrow, Potatoes~

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