Film Review: The China Syndrome (1979)

The two most important scenes of 1979′s The China Syndrome are the two static shots of network television monitors which bookend James Bridges’ film. The shots of television monitors depict members of the television media covering puff-piece stories. This establishes an immediate and powerfully condemning connection with the deplorable, 24 hour media circus of the present day. It is primarily in its eviscerating perspective on the media where The China Syndrome is the most interesting to a 21st century viewer, more so than the main storyline about a faulty power-plant and the evil corporation behind it.

The China Syndrome stars Jane Fonda, at her spirited, smoking hot, 1970′s best. Fonda plays Kimberley Wells, a television reporter whose drive to produce hard-hitting journalism has been compromised by the misogyny of her station’s director and the industry’s favoring of more bombastic material. This changes during the filming of a routine news story about a nuclear power plant. At the plant Kimberley, along with her brash and heavily bearded cameraman, Richard (a very effective and very young Michael Douglas, who also produced the film) witness a suspicious looking emergency procedure, headed by a very harassed looking man named Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) the Shift Supervisor of the plant.

Unknown to the executives of the plant, Richard secretly films the activity during the emergency. Kimberley, seeing her chance at a significant story attempts to use Lemmon’s Godell to corroborate the idea that the nuclear reactor is fundamentally unstable. As they continue to investigate a horrifying possibility emerges: The reactor may indeed be so unstable that a full-blown meltdown could be eminent. When they try to reveal their findings the triumvirate is stonewalled by the network executives. Even more frightening however are the shadowy corporate figures in control of the plant, who will do anything to prevent the story from airing.

In many ways The China Syndrome is a tough pill to swallow. It is representative of dogmatically liberal Hollywood at its worst. Every suit in The China Syndrome is morally unscrupulous. Conversely, our protagonists, aside from a few very minor character flaws, are presented in a totally positive light. They are crusading whistleblowers that we should all worship. One can almost envision a young Matt Damon watching this movie, getting that abrasive, activist twinkle in his eye for the first time.

There is however a specificity to the characters (particularly Fonda’s Kimberley) that allows for complex characterization despite the black and white dynamic between the film’s activist protagonists and it’s cast of loathsome corporate stooges. Bridges and Fonda create a rich, instantly engaging character with Kimberley Wells, who is a woman battling against the mores of her time. There is nobody who can bring a character like this to life in as complex yet nuanced a way as Fonda. She is totally at the top of her game here, showing us the both the dogged determination of the woman as she butts heads with her condescending bosses, but also her vulnerability, which is captured beautifully during a small scene showing Kimberley at her apartment.

Almost as impressive is the performance of Lemmon as Godell, who provides the film with its tragic heart. Playing the part of a man trying to hang on to his belief in a system, yet unable to shake the feeling of impending doom, Lemmon creates the perfect mixture of white-knuckle intensity and affecting poignancy. Godell is yet another example (similar to his work in Save the Tiger) that supports Lemmon’s status as American film’s ultimate everyman.

Of the film’s main cast the weakest point comes from Douglas as abrasive cameraman, Richard, although this has very little to do with his performance. The script simply never elaborates on Richard’s background and is not interested in exploring the motivations behind his blustery demeanor and generally aggressive behaviors.

The China Syndrome is shot simply, with the camera taking on a static, observational stance throughout most of the film. Still this is a style which fits the thematic interests of Bridges film quite well. Superfluous camerawork, or manipulative lighting is not really necessary here, as many of the scenes in The China Syndrome penetrate into the interiors of the nuclear plant itself. These sequences immediately offer their own form of dramatic power. Any additions by the filmmakers would almost dilute the impact of the cavernous plant or the harshly lit control room occupied by Godell.

Despite the efficacy of the aesthetics and the acting one can’t NOT notice the dated nature of the film’s story. While at one point this film was undoubtedly a more novel idea, its major plot points (corporate apathy, unswayed idealism and finally violent intimidation of activists) can now be seen coming from a mile away. That being said, the ending of China Syndrome remains immensely shocking, and Bridges utilizes silence in a way which really amps up the trauma of the films climactic final scenes.

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The China Syndrome is now dated, and is certainly guilty of painting with a broad brush when it comes to who is bad and who is good in its story. Nevertheless, Bridges fills the screen with dramatic images, creates a shocking, brutal finale, and showcases the skills of three accomplished actors – especially Fonda, who delivers one of her best performances. Although more effective as an investigation into the status of television journalism at the dawn of the 80′s, recent horrors, such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, perhaps show that The China Syndrome’s warning may still possess a sense of potent, applicable relevance.

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