As The China Syndrome opens, we wouldn’t much expect turmoil. We surmise, like its characters, that we’re going to be sitting through the goings-on of a typical weekday afternoon. Consider that our first impression of the movie’s accessory covered leading character, news reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), is that she's vacuous: She’s doing a silly piece on singing telegrams for her station.
But soon afterward, the film moves away from fluff and repositions itself. A day or so after the singing telegram feature, we follow Wells and her crew, comprising cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) and soundman Hector Salas (Daniel Valdez), to the Ventana nuclear power plant outside Los Angeles. For this particular story, they plan to give the public an inside look into the nuclear energy industry, interviewing one charismatic plant worker and getting a couple neat shots. No one expects anything big. Despite wanting to purvey hard news stories, Wells is an expert at finding frivolous, diverting pieces, and this one should not prove to be anything out of the ordinary.
But when the gaggle heads to the control room, the situation overturns. The shift supervisor, Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon), notices his coffee vibrating, and this is enough to lead him to an eventual understanding that a gauge in the system has been misreading crucial information for hours. A necessary coolant has been reported to be overflowing, but in actuality has been running dangerously low. Alarms sound, beads of sweat dripping of the furrowed foreheads of the men in the control room. Occasional emotional outbursts come out. Going on is an emergency shutdown.
Like Wells and company, we’re not so sure what’s happening. But the disparity between the terror on the faces of the men tasked with keeping the plant stable and the eventual relief that follows when the situation seems to be under control is enough to cause concern.
When nothing substantial is released to the public, the television crew is flummoxed. What they witnessed was not an everyday mishap — it might have been life-threatening. Fortunately, Adams, in lieu of its possibly derailing his career, gets the entire ordeal on camera. Enraged, he wants to the public to see what happened and judge for themselves.
But the public relations people at the news station won’t have it: a massive lawsuit might come to light. In response, Wells is willing to put the whole thing behind her. She desires a future. But Adams won’t have it. Something awful happened that day, and the lacking of transparency can only suggest that a cover-up might be the name of the game.
Wells tries to move on. But then Adams takes the film to experts. And then Wells gets to know Godell. And from there does does it start to become abundantly clear that something is very, very wrong — and that Godell’s superiors just might be falsifying vital records in order to keep themselves financially lucrative.
A political thriller to be grouped alongside Alan J. Pakula’s “paranoia trilogy” (consisting of 1971’s Klute, also led by Jane Fonda, 1974’s The Parallax View, and 1976’s All the President’s Men), The China Syndrome, directed by James Bridges, is an anxious, pulse-pounding roller coaster that evokes tremendous fear, specifically in the name of nuclear power plants. How much, it speculates, can we trust nuclear energy? Are there, as it went with the quasi-antagonists of the similar Silkwood (1983), figures behind the scenes more concerned with protecting their livelihoods than they are with the well-beings of the public they’re supposedly serving?
The movie inflicts deep distrust, and also terror, particularly because we don’t always know how often our lives might be in danger on a day to day basis. The individuals populating the The China Syndrome encapsulate our alarm, as understandably frightened as they are determined to hold those corrupted accountable for their wrongs. But is such possible with potential lawsuits, and sometimes even the taking of lives, hanging over their heads?
Fonda, Douglas, and especially Lemmon perform with such boiling intensity that we cannot help but get angry along with them. Undoubtedly do their characters just want to do their jobs. Fonda’s Wells clearly was the top broadcast journalism student at her college and will not continue wallowing in trite non-news stories for much longer. Douglas’ Adams was probably a kid who filmed Super 8’s incessantly throughout during his childhood and merely wants to keep his filmmaking passions up and running. Lemmon’s Godell thrives on the stresses of his job, obsessed with having to pick his brain constantly, and would be fine sitting in the control room pressing buttons all day. But all have seen too much to ignore.
The actors capture their ardency (sometimes hesitantly and sometimes explosively) so efficiently thats we can see ourselves in them. Bridges instills just enough personal touches to keep their humanistic qualities in check. Even Wells, who seems to have it all in spite of not necessarily having the career she wants, lives in a slightly shabby apartment downtown, has no love life, and humorously has a pet turtle around to keep her company, for example.
The China Syndrome never loses sight of its pragmatism. Its heroes are everyday people, its conclusions are cynical albeit realistic, and its ideas are never soaked in Hollywood pomp and circumstance. It deals with its central conflict as naturalistically as a film of its caliber can. But it also provokes discussion and advertises awareness, more relevant than ever in a new political era that mimics the post-Nixon period and then some.
It was a huge success in 1979, making back its budget nearly 10 times and receiving four Oscar nominations, two accounting for the phenomenal work of Fonda and Lemmon. The nuclear industry, of course, described the film as “sheer fiction,” going as far as claiming that it did nothing more than assassinate its character. But ironically, the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania just 12 days after the world premiere of the movie. So I guess the message of The China Syndrome is that when James Bridges, his co-writers, and a notable cast of actors warn you that neither the nuclear industry nor the government can really be trusted, you’d better pay attention. A
2 Hrs., 2 Mins.
The China Syndrome August 19, 2017
he events witnessed in The China Syndrome (1979) would not have occurred if its protagonists met a day or two earlier. They’d continue going about their daily lives, trying to excel at their jobs and return home every evening with enough satisfaction in their belly to do the same thing all over again come seven a.m. But, alas, this movie is not your average slice of life. It reminds one what a terrifying thing bad timing can be, and how being in the wrong place at the wrong moment can sometimes be enough to see something that makes you want to stand up and shout.