Director: James Bridges
Screenplay: James Bridges, Mike Gray, T.S. Cook
Starring: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas, Wilford Brimley, Peter Donat, James Hampton, Scott Brady
Running Time: 122 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
The China Syndrome is a film that may or may not have commercially benefitted, but certainly gained credibility from events that occurred around the time of its release. It’s a disaster movie that casts doubt as to the safety of nuclear power which may have seemed far fetched at first, but, twelve days after it was released theatrically, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident happened in Pennsylvania. The disaster saw the escape of large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant, caused by errors frighteningly similar to those portrayed in The China Syndrome. So fears as to the safety of harnessing nuclear energy suddenly became justified. Watching the film soon after the incident must have been a frightening experience, but how does it hold up almost 40 years later?
To elaborate first on the film’s story, The China Syndrome sees local news reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) head to a nuclear power plant to shoot a special. It’s meant to be a straightforward informational piece, but she witnesses an accident which appears to have brought the plant close to the brink of a terrible disaster. She’s fobbed off afterwards when she tries to sell that side of the story, but luckily her cameraman friend Richard (Michael Douglas) had his camera secretly running during the incident and has proof that everything was not under control as the power plant bosses claim. Meanwhile, Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon), the plant supervisor in charge at the time, does his own investigations into what caused the problem. He finds a fault with the system and evidence of fudged safety tests, so tries to put the plant on shutdown whilst the issues get resolved. As the power company are currently applying for a licence to open a new nuclear plant, they are reticent to let this get out though. Jack therefore approaches Wells, before deciding to take matters into his own hands in a rather rash and dangerous fashion.
I love a good thriller and, in my opinion, the 70s was the best era for the genre. That’s when thrillers started to get more tough, realistic and intelligent, and The China Syndrome is no different. I’ve already mentioned how it was realistic enough to match a nuclear disaster yet to happen. As for being tough, it may not be gritty and violent or filled with hard-boiled dialogue, but the believable threat of nuclear disaster is frightening to watch.
Its intelligence is not only displayed in the well-researched, tech-heavy dialogue, but also in the fact that the film manages to skewer some other targets in its script. For one, it examines the presence and importance of TV news. Wells’ boss is easily controlled by the money men into what he can and can’t broadcast for instance. There’s also a nice touch right at the end of the film when we cut from Wells’ dramatic and emotionally charged reporting on the events of the film’s finale to a corny advert for microwave ovens.
The treatment and use of female journalists comes under fire too as Wells’ character is only ever used to cover fluffy light entertainment pieces rather than hard news. There are also allusions that she only got where she was for her looks in the male-dominated industry. Wells proves them wrong in the end of course – Fonda wouldn’t have it any other way.
This brings us to one of the few problems with the film. The makers clearly want to make a statement about the dangers of nuclear power so there’s an element of preachiness here and it occasionally lurches into melodrama to make its point.
This is a minor niggle though. Ultimately the film works a treat, offering a gripping thriller that doesn’t rely on action to keep you on edge. There is a brief car chase and some violence near the end, but it’s hardly The French Connection. Instead it’s the script and performances that keep you watching. Indeed, the starry cast do a decent job, with Lemmon in particular proving he could do serious drama every bit as effectively as comedy. So, it’s another fine example of the classy, serious filmmaking coming out of Hollywood during the 1970s, even towards the end of the decade when fantastical blockbusters were beginning to dominate.
The China Syndrome is being re-released on 25th June by Powerhouse Films on Blu-Ray as part of their Indicator label in the UK. The picture and sound quality are excellent.
There are plenty of special features included too:
- Original mono audio
– Alternative 5.1 surround sound track
– A Fusion of Talent (1999, 28 mins): documentary about the making of the film, featuring interviews with cast and crew, including Jane Fonda, actor-producer Michael Douglas, executive producer Bruce Gilbert, and actor Jack Larson, partner of director James Bridges
- Creating a Controversy (1999, 30 mins): documentary about the controversy surrounding the film and the real-life events which occurred just after its release
– The John Player Lecture with Jack Lemmon (1973, 80 mins)
– Deleted scenes
- Theatrical Trailer
- Image gallery: on-set and promotional photography
- Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Neil Sinyard, an overview of contemporary critical responses and historic articles on the film
- Limited Edition of 3,000 copies
It’s all solid stuff which illuminates the interesting background to the film and the coincidental timing of its release. The lecture with Jack Lemmon has no mention of The China Syndrome, as it was recorded a few years before that was made, but it’s still a hugely entertaining and interesting listen. The booklet is as highly recommended as always too.