TODAY, ONLY A HANDFUL OF PEOPLE KNOW WHAT IT MEANS… SOON YOU WILL KNOW.
In one of the most bizarre turn of events in Hollywood history, a film highlighting the dangers of nuclear power was released mere days before the most serious accident in U.S. history happened at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania. There were no fatalities, but one of the two reactors suffered a partial meltdown. The China Syndrome was not meant to capitalize from the event, but it was nevertheless a huge hit and helped inform people worldwide of the dangers inherent in nuclear technology.
The industry’s representatives had at first denounced the film as unrealistic. Within days they looked like fools. And we were still seven years away from Chernobyl.
Witnessing an emergency shutdown
Los Angeles TV news reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) is stuck doing mostly puff pieces. One day, when she and cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) are visiting the Ventana nuclear power plant, they witness an emergency shutdown. Supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) discovers that the coolant is much too low, but after a few sweaty moments the crisis is averted and everyone is visibly relieved. Richard had been told not to film the control room from the observation floor, but he did so anyway. However, after getting in touch with the company that runs Ventana, the TV station forbids Kimberly and Richard from showing the footage on air. Furious, Richard steals the film and shows it to experts who confirm that a serious accident must have happened. At the same time, Godell also realizes that the worst may yet come…
Controversial from the start
Anyone who knew something about nuclear technology understood the catastrophic meaning of a “China syndrome”, explained in the film as a meltdown so severe that it would theoretically burn its way through to China. In order to avert suspicions from the nuclear industry, which might have invited problems, the film originally carried a different, neutral title.
The project was controversial from the start as it involved both Fonda and Lemmon (brilliant here) who were decidedly against nuclear power; Douglas later said that producing the film became a teaching moment for him as well. The facts of the story were thoroughly researched and based on earlier incidents in American nuclear plants. They came to form the backbone of a more traditional thriller story, where the Ventana owners are made into your average movie villains, willing and able to do anything to stop the truth from being told. This is obvious in a very skillfully filmed car chase that is one of the film’s highlights; another is the final showdown in the control room. Both sequences are very tense, masterfully directed and edited by James Bridges and David Rawlins.
There’s no music score, but that only serves to underline the severity of the disaster envisioned in the screenplay; the silence of the end credits gives us pause. The film fits in perfectly with the typical paranoia pieces of the decade and also benefits from an idealistic portrayal of journalism and what it can achieve. Fonda believed the movie also had a feminist message, which fuses nicely with that idealism.
The final scene features microwave ovens, possibly as a reminder of simple appliances that we take for granted, even though the technology is relatively new and complex. Silly perhaps, but the purpose of the film is obviously to make us think hard about the energy decisions we make. 35 years later, we still depend on nuclear power and we still worry about it. The China Syndrome and Three Mile Island did educate us. But the hold on us is just too strong.
The China Syndrome 1979-U.S. 123 min. Color. Produced by Michael Douglas. Directed by James Bridges. Screenplay: Mike Gray, T.S. Cook, James Bridges. Editing: David Rawlins. Cast: Jane Fonda (Kimberly Wells), Jack Lemmon (Jack Godell), Michael Douglas (Richard Adams), Scott Brady, James Hampton, Peter Donat… Wilford Brimley.
Trivia: Richard Dreyfuss was originally considered for the lead role.
BAFTA: Best Actor (Lemmon), Actress (Fonda). Cannes: Best Actor (Lemmon).
Last word: “I was this Academy-award winning producer but also trying to make a transition as an actor from TV to the big screen. […] The work I did with experts in that movie had the most lasting effect on me. It was at a time when we were regarded as irresponsible Hollywood exhibitionists. When the movie opened, it was received well, but dismissed as ridiculous. Three weeks after, we had Three Mile Island. […] That has begun my political work. I am a U.N. ‘Messenger of Peace’, and focus on disarmament of nuclear weapeans and small arms. I was in New York in December 1980 when John Lennon was killed. I work on hand-gun controls when I don’t find good movies to do. I work on documentaries – I did one on child soldiers. All this goes back to my work on ‘The China Syndrome’.” (Douglas, Film Scouts)