The China Syndrome (1979) was, for a time, more famous for issues surrounding it than the movie itself.
When this thriller was first released, it received mixed reviews. Newsweek called the film “emotional manipulation”, while the New York Times said it was “less about the laws of physics than about public and private ethics”.
The film, about a malfunction at a nuclear power plant, was also accused of trying to shape public debate about nuclear energy.
The nuclear industry was unhappy with the film, too. They dismissed The China Syndrome as unrealistic.
But get this. Not two weeks after the film’s release, there was a nuclear accident, a real one, at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania. It was the worst nuclear accident on American soil.
At first, filmmakers were accused of staging the accident as publicity. Then critics said if the Three Mile Island accident had not happened, The China Syndrome would have been long forgotten.
It’s almost as if everyone wanted this film to fail.
Which would have been a shame. For one thing, the film has a tense Looming Disaster script that asks probing questions about nuclear energy.
The casting is also superb. Jane Fonda stars as a television journalist craving her first hard-news story, and Michael Douglas plays an anti-establishment cameraman who knows Trouble when he smells it.
The most remarkable character, in our opinion, is the unassuming shift supervisor at the nuclear facility, played by Jack Lemmon in an Oscar-nominated performance.
On the surface, Lemmon’s character is a slightly dented middle-aged man whose job anchors his life. But his rumpled exterior belies a sharp, resourceful mind. Lemmon’s character is hardwired to solve problems, and it never occurs to him to not fix a problem.
The extraordinary thing about Lemmon’s portrayal is we (the audience) learn all of these things about the character during his very first scene.
Yet, this character fallible. One of Lemmon’s most important scenes, we think, occurs late in the film when the facility is preparing for start-up. Lemmon is convinced the reactor is unsafe, and he’s barricaded himself in the facility control room. Fonda joins him so she can do a live On-The-Spot interview. When the camera crew arrives, she asks Lemmon if he’s ready and he, pale and nervous, says he is.
But he’s not. It’s clear his character doesn’t understand television. When the live interview begins, Lemmon launches into a SCIENCE LESSON, for pete sake. We know he’s trying to frame the problem, but television viewers would need the gist of the crisis ASAP.
Alas! Before Lemmon is properly able to explain the situation, the electricity is cut off.
Lemmon gives us a powerful illustration of a man wanting to do right, yet he fails to grasp society has Moved On. There’s no time for education; even a nuclear crisis must be reduced to a sound bite.
A scientist in the film explains what the term China Syndrome means:
“If the core [of a nuclear reactor] is exposed, for whatever reason, the fuel heats beyond core heat tolerance in a matter of minutes. Nothing can stop it, and it melts right down through the bottom of the plant, theoretically to China. But, of course, as soon as it hits groundwater, it blasts into the atmosphere and sends out clouds of radioactivity. The number people killed would depend on which way the wind is blowing.”
This is why Lemmon’s character is so stressed. He feels he can save the situation – that he must save it – but he simply isn’t persuasive enough. Lemmon’s desperate, riveting performance is infectious; we absorb his angst which ratchets the tension.
This is one of our favourite Jack Lemmon films. If you haven’t seen The China Syndrome, we hope you can see it soon.
The China Syndrome: starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas. Directed by James Bridges. Written by Mike Gray, T.S. Cook & James Bridges. Columbia Pictures, 1979, Color, 122 mins.
This is part of The Jack Lemmon Blogathon hosted by Critica Retro and Wide Screen World.