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

Genre: Thriller Running Time: 2 hrs. 2 min.

Release Date: March 16th, 1979 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: James Bridges Actors: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas, Wilford Brimley, Scott Brady




hile on a routine special report segment for her TV station, newswoman Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), accompanied by independent cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas), witnesses an accident in the control room of the Ventana Nuclear Power Plant. Richard captures the mayhem on film, even though he’s specifically told not to record control room activities (for security purposes) – and neither one is entirely certain what is taking place. Based on the reactions of the men on duty, including chief operator Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon), the reportorial crew believes that thousands of lives could have been at stake. In an attempt to get the Ventana plant shut down, Kimberly and Richard take the footage to nuclear engineering experts, who analyze the information and discover that it was definitely not a routine procedure – all while the multimillion-dollar company tries to cover up the severity of the episode. When Godell realizes the facility is legitimately unsafe, he joins Wells and Adams in a desperate bid against the conniving corporation to make the dangerousness of the predicament known to the public.

The ruthlessness of wealthy companies intent on covering up mistakes or bad publicity is nothing new, especially for thematic material, but “The China Syndrome” takes that concept a step further with the introduction of a much graver, universally acknowledged dilemma – nuclear disaster. Recklessness for the sake of profit by the corrupt institution leads to the perceived insanity of Godell – in actuality, he’s the only one who fully comprehends the distressfulness of the situation. With the lengthy nuclear energy explanations, complex control room design, and heavy jargon by all of the involved professionals, the audience will certainly be less informed than the lead characters. Nonetheless, it’s decidedly topical.

The film also explores the intricacies of behind-the-scenes news reporting, including what goes on right up to the broadcasting of the 6 o’clock news. Hectic and fast paced (with a few car chases thrown into the mix), the constantly moving life of reporter Wells is almost as fascinating as the potential nuclear threat. The power of the press comes into play, as does the need to limit information made available to the public – and who gets to make those weighty decisions. As Godell attempts to rattle off his tangled account of the ominous yet harmless happenstance to anxious listeners, Wells’ simple yet unavoidable challenge to the audience, of not letting the case get swept under the carpet, allows for a rivetingly open-ended and thought-provoking conclusion, which keeps the film’s subject matter just as relevant decades later.

A little more than a week after “The China Syndrome” was released theatrically, the notorious Three Mile Island partial nuclear meltdown occurred, which sparked additional, controversial interest in the film. It’s an event that marked this picture as one of the most coincidental premieres in cinema history. Producer Michael Douglas assumed it would hurt its success, but star Fonda disagreed, believing that audiences would want to see a fictional recounting of the issue, even though the plot was not specifically based on any real happening (let alone one that hadn’t taken place until after the movie’s opening). The project served not only to educate unknowledgeable onlookers, but also to influence government intervention and nuclear industry regulations.

Though “No Country for Old Men” is the most notable film in recent years to remove all traces of soundtrack music, it’s by no means the first. “The China Syndrome” previously opted to do away with background music to create a greater sense of realism and immediacy. In many ways, while scrutinizing human error, disbelief, and the commonplace greed that seems dastardlier than hazardous radioactive gasses escaping into the atmosphere, the filmmakers crafted a pseudo-documentary for anti-nuclear activists hoping to convince of potential environmental downfalls. A taut, exciting, well-acted thriller, as well as an intense examination of the intrusion and education of the press, the film went on to receive four 1979 Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor (Lemmon), Best Actress (Fonda), and Best Original Screenplay for Mike Gray, T.S. Cook, and James Bridges (who also directed).

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10