- Movie Rating -

The China Syndrome (1979)

| March 16, 1979

I’ll be honest, I generally have an emotional distance from movies with a social conscience because I know that, by the very nature of the piece, the producers necessarily have to drum up some phony drama to get the message across.  I do this all the time with documentaries.  I have to find my logical foothold before I give my emotional well-being to a piece of work that is trying to reach me on a deeper level.  If I didn’t, I’d spend most of my life hiding under the bed.

Yet, a bizarre historical convergence makes Jim Bridges’ The China Syndrome kind of an exception.  This is a movie about a near-catastrophe at a Los Angeles nuclear power plant in which the temperature levels almost reach point critical due to a lack of safety procedures and cheap gauges that keep the technicians thinking that the temperature levels are completely normal.  Yet, buy a strange coincidence, just 11 days after the film was released, the same thing nearly happened at a plant at Three-Mile Island.

In  that way, The China Syndrome clearly sees a massive flaw in the mechanism of nuclear energy and how those flaws are covered up by men who routinely slap band aids on safety regulations in an effort to save money.  The desperation to expose such a potential crisis is seen trough the most effective manner in which to tell this story in a fictional drama: a pulse-pounding thriller.

The plot here is clearly drawn.  It follows a hard-working reporter Kimberley Welles (Jane Fonda) and her camera man Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) who are doing a story about nuclear energy at an L.A. plant and just happen to be present when catastrophe strikes.  Douglas surreptitiously films in an area where he is not supposed to be filming and sneaks his footage out and shows it to experts who confirm that this problem could lead to catastrophe.

The event leaves both Kimberly and Richard shaken, particularly because such an accident could result in what is known as a “China Syndrome”, a term used to describe a meltdown of a nuclear plant that – by terms – would be severe that it would melt through the floor an all the way to China.

The human core of the movie comes in a terrific performance by Jack Lemmon as the plant whistleblower Jack Godell, who has worked at the plant for years, sees the cut-backs and the difference from is fellow employees.  Godell becomes the lone voice a reason, He’s Miles Bennell in Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Karen Silkwood in Silkwood, the person who is screaming in the dark about a disaster and finds himself surrounded by those who just want him to put his head down and be quiet.  What may be even scarier in The China Syndrome then the potential of nuclear disaster are the gaggle of people willing to keep quiet about it.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1979) View IMDB Filed in: Drama