Grave and grim: The China Syndrome (James Bridges, 1979)


The China Syndrome’s warning about the dangers of nuclear power could hardly have been more timely; the film was released only days before the Three Mile Island incident. This message, however, in no way lessens how successful The China Syndrome is as entertainment. It stars Jane Fonda as Kimberly Wells, a popular TV reporter who wants to move away from puff pieces and into serious stories. While filming at a nuclear power plant, she witnesses an accident that supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) barely brings under control. Her cameraman and old friend, Richard Adams (Michael Douglas), films the whole event, but The Powers That Be block them from making the story public. While they investigate further, Godell reluctantly realises that the plant is far more dangerous than anyone could have guessed.

The China Syndrome is a grave film. There’s no extra-diegetic music, outside of the title sequence. Each shot is carefully placed. The plot moves, for the most part, with restraint, and a pivotal moment occurs with great understatement. Aside from its stars, the cast look like ordinary people, grounding the film in reality. All of this only adds to the tension and a belief that by the end of the film, anything could happen. A happy ending is in no way guaranteed.

Jane Fonda plays her role in a natural fashion, and shows a certain overlap in Kimberley’s onscreen and offscreen demeanours. She may have to read ridiculous stories, but something of her compassionate side is evident in her delivery. Likewise, her confidence in front of the camera isn’t an act, but part of her everyday composure. We can feel her frustration at being used as eye candy by her bosses.

Lemmon is adept at playing anxiety, which is vital for Jack. The character is in a position of incredible responsibility, while having no real control over how the plant is run. For much of the film, his fears are tempered by his trust in the plant’s design. It’s a credit to how Lemmon and the writers construct the character that when Jack finally succumbs to sheer panic, it shows just how dire things are: he’s not someone who loses control without reason.

Michael Douglas produced this film, and spent years trying to get it made. He’s also a last minute replacement for Richard Dreyfuss, who was supposed to play Richard. Dreyfuss would have been far better in this role, which requires a sort of edgy energy that Douglas can’t give without being unlikeable. As it is, Douglas is an irritant, but one that can be overlooked.

The China Syndrome seems sceptical about the notion of truth, or at least the way that the public is aware of it. Who will accept Kimberley’s story? Who won’t be bought? Who will make the difficult choices? Will the facts see the light of day, or will they be distorted? What can be done when big business has the power? Kimberley, Jack and Richard’s efforts come at great cost but may not, in the end, have done any good at all.


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