If you missed it in 1986 (I was 8), The Manhattan Project is kind of a cross between “Dr. Strangelove,” and “E.T.” It ends in a sweaty finish that is arguably the best bomb-defusing scene in movie history. The finale is short. It is peppered with pithy jokes, and it features beautiful back-and-forth between John Lithgow, John Mahoney, Richard Jenkins and the teenage star Christopher Collet.
But amid real nuclear catastrophe, Wikileaks cables, and a series of young, Internet-savvy uprisings across the world, The Manhattan Project poses a surprisingly relevant allegory about how governments and people use technology. It’s also a time capsule of not how tech has changed in the last 25 years, but how it’s stayed the same, and how we’re really trying to do the same things we’ve always been trying, only better. Or worse, depending on how you look at it.
Written and directed by Woody Allen writing partner Marshall Brickman, the pacing from playful family/teen movie to a thriller climax with a deft political statement is impressive. In fact, I rewatched it in a couple sittings on Netflix, and found the first half kind of dated and goofy, like Goonies or Monster Squad. But the final 45 minutes are brilliant and mature. Bordering on preachy, but with some nice winks from Lithgow and Mahoney. The underlying message is a common one in 80s nuke fiction: mutually assured destruction is fucked. Particularly when all of the people perpetuating it are, at heart, good and caring. The metaphor of all parties each cutting wires simultaneously is a little heavy, but sweet.
But what really got me thinking about The Manhattan Project is its use of technology. I watched a documentary recently that posed that all technological advances are basically reinventions of inventions from the 1980s. The iPod is a walkman. The iPhone is a car phone (or perhaps a bag phone). VCR to the DVR, DVD, home streaming. And so on. The Manhattan Project has a couple of instances that serve as almost eerie demonstrations of that.
First, the teenage main characters are on a bus, on the run with a preposterously small and nimble homemade nuclear weapon. Paul looks over a sleeping commuter’s shoulder and he’s watching a portable television set on his lap, about the size of a small microwave, with a 4×4 in. screen and one earbud. Paul and Jenny (denim-clad, liberated teen played by Cynthia Nixon) trade off with the earbud and watch the news, where they are being reported as domestic terrorists on the run. Keep in mind, this is 25 years before smartphones or tablets, but serving exactly the same purpose they eventually would.
Later, as Paul’s nearing his showdown with the army guys and nuclear scientists, Jenny decides the only way she can try to save them from being killed in a cover up is if she rallies as many people as she can to the site of the nuclear weapons plant. She picks up her landline in the family kitchen, calls a friend (played by Robert Sean Leonard!) and says:
“All of our lives are stake. When you hang up, call two people. It doesn’t matter who. Tell them each of them to call two people. And then those people call two more people. Tell them all to go to…”
It’s not genius, it’s a phone tree. But still, when I watched it recently, it actually took me a half a second to figure out why she would do that. And then I thought, oh like Twitter. It was a distinctively teenage tactic, as all novel communication is, for better or worse. A flurry of dialing can spread a dirty rumor just like a mass text of a naked teenager. But in this case, an offline social network rallies the kids in the town to organize against the U.S. military.
Meanwhile at the nuke factory, Paul is under threat from a team of ear-pieced and walkie-carrying army guys with long-range sniper rifles, TSA x-ray scanners and surveilance cameras. No doubt all pretty cool-looking at the release date.
What I’m getting at is not that The Manhattan Project’s technology seems silly in hindsight, but that it remains a shrewd fictional snapshot of technology doing what it’s always done: not changing how we communicate, but forcefully evolving the efficiency with which we already do so. Just as bomb-makers forcefully evolve the way we kill each other. Extending the reach of the voice, and extending the reach of the arm.
Governments use it to secure and control nations. People use it to subvert that control for better or worse, whether by phone tree, Facebook group or leaked State Department documents from an undisclosed location in Switzerland.
In the final scene, with little-to-no falling action before denuoument, Lithgow has defused the homemade nuke and redeemed himself as a man of science and not a mass murderer, saving New England from a 100 kiloton accidental nuclear explosion. He walks toward the exit, military assault rifles targeted on him, and shouts: “What are you going to do? Silence me? And him?” Here he opens a cargo door. “And all of them.” And the teenagers are crowded around outside.
“Too many secrets.” he shouts, resigned and exhausted. “Too many secrets.”
Twenty-five years later, it seems not much has changed. But the secrets are bigger, the nuclear disasters are real, and the phone trees are a hell of a lot better.