Hollywood Flashback: In 1986, "The Manhattan Project" built a thriller around an atomic bomb

Hollywood Flashback: In 1986, “The Manhattan Project” built a thriller around an atomic bomb

by Christopher Nolan Oppenheimerwhich will be released on July 21, chronicles the Manhattan Project and Trinity, or the creation and detonation of the first nuclear bomb in the world. The Manhattan Project (1986) also chronicles the making of a nuclear weapon, but this was whipped up from green goo and built in a teenager’s bedroom.

The film, from writer-director Marshall Brickman, best known for being Woody Allen’s writing partner (they share an Oscar for Annie Hall) – is about a scientist (John Lithgow) who secretly refines plutonium in a government laboratory in Ithaca, New York. A brilliant local student named Paul (Christopher Collet) and his aspiring journalist girlfriend (Cynthia Nixon, already a veteran of stage and screen at 19) uncover the plot. Paul decides to steal the plutonium to make a bomb of his own, which he then attempts to enter at the National Science Fair in New York City.

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Cynthia Nixon, Lithgow and Collet.

Cynthia Nixon, Lithgow and Collet.

20th Century Fox Film Corp./Everett Collection

To consult on the film, Bran Ferren, an MIT prodigy and former head of Walt Disney Imagineering, was called. “Evidently, my homemade bomb was a working design,” recalls Collet, now 55, of Ferren’s creation. Brickman also gave his cast “a bunch of books that talked about the development of the atomic bomb.”

The film climaxes with a scene where the bomb’s clock is triggered and Lithgow and Collet try to stop it as a dozen military officers (including the late John Mahoney) look on in terror.

Says Collet: “The tension you feel in that scene? We were all really experiencing it. When six wires are cut simultaneously to defuse the weapon, the countdown stops at 07:16:45, the date of the Trinity test. Released June 13, 1986 – just six weeks after the Chernobyl disaster – The Manhattan Project bombed at the box office, earning just $3.9 million.

This story first appeared in the July 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to register now.