The China Syndrome (1979)    2 Stars

“Today, only a handful of people know what it means… Soon you will know.”

The China Syndrome (1979)
The China Syndrome (1979)

Director: James Bridges

Cast: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas

Synopsis: A reporter finds what appears to be a cover-up of safety hazards at a nuclear power plant.




Although generally viewed as an anti-nuclear (or ‘nucular’ if you’re Michael Douglas), The China Syndrome is really more of a warning about the dangers of inadequate safety procedures in the nuclear industry. The fact that the movie was released just two or three weeks before the Three Mile Island incident gave it an added immediacy of which its producers could have only dreamed. To call it a happy accident might be inappropriate under the circumstances, not only because the meltdown could have had serious consequences for the local population, but because The China Syndrome is a strong enough movie to have succeeded without the additional publicity of fact echoing fiction.

Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) is a frustrated TV news reporter assigned to inconsequential fluff items of local interest which she feels are beneath her. While working on a routine report about the local nuclear power plant with cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas – King of California) she witnesses what appears to be a serious incident in the plant’s control room which Adams surreptitiously films. When the TV station refuses to show the unauthorised film, Kimberly, convinced that a major incident was narrowly averted, decides to investigate further. She questions the plant’s shift supervisor, Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon – Fire Down Below, Some Like it Hot), and it soon becomes apparent that Godell harbours strong doubts about the safety of the plant, and is frustrated by its management’s refusal to listen to his fears…

Although Fonda is the star, and gives a good performance as an ambitious woman forced to endure the condescending attitudes of most of the men whom she works for, The China Syndrome is undoubtedly Jack Lemmon’s movie. Although he’s mostly remembered for his comedy roles, Lemmon was also a fine serious actor, which he repeatedly proved in a series of all-too infrequent opportunities (Days of Wine and Roses, Missing, GlenGarry Glen Ross) and the internal struggle his tortured character undergoes in The China Syndrome is conveyed with typical finesse, While Fonda’s role serves to reinforce within our minds her status as a movie star – perfectly made-up and beautiful at all times – Lemmon, with his tie undone and his glasses perched on the end of his nose, is completely convincing as a good man trapped in a horrible situation from which he can only escape by sacrificing everything he knows. The scene in which he falls apart as he tries to explain to a captive TV audience the gravity of the situation is almost painful to endure and is strangely more suspenseful than any ‘race against time’ routine. Michael Douglas, the other male lead, pales by comparison. Still finding his feet in movies after a successful run in the TV series The Streets of San Francisco, his inexperience is painfully exposed in every scene he shares with the older actor.

It’s a fact that many high-tech movies date quicker than other movies simply because of the speed of technological advancement, but for most of us the technology involved in nuclear reactors is probably so inaccessible as to be almost meaningless. To be sure, a portion of the movie involves men reacting to flashing buttons on a computer the size of a church organ, but because the technology isn’t the star of The China Syndrome it doesn’t distract from the plot in the way many older ‘high-tech’ movies do. One of the better movies of the 1970s, The China Syndrome remains an example of how Hollywood was once prepared to cast major stars in a movie which feature no explosions, fist fights or love interest.

(Reviewed 24th March 2015)

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