ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The China Syndrome (1979) Blu Ray (Indicator)
Incident at a nuclear plant
Jane Fonda plays Kimberly Wells, a Los Angeles newscaster who is usually assigned to report on such lightweight local items as the birthdays of various animals in the local zoo and a company who delivers singing telegrams. For her latest assignment, she is sent to a local nuclear power plant with her maverick, hirsute cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) in order to report on a guided tour of the facility. They stop to overlook the control room from an observation deck, where Richard is told that he is not permitted to film anything that goes on therein.
While they are there, however, they feel a number of unnatural quake-like vibrations. It soon becomes obvious that the control room personnel, managed by Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon), are in a panic as they desperately try to get the situation under control. Richard decides to secretly film the mayhem. While the incident doesn’t blow into anything more major than a temporary panic, the pair of them see the footage as an opportunity to further their respective careers by breaking a huge news story.
When they try to put it on air that evening, their superior Don Jacovich (Peter Donat) refuses to allow them to do so until he is more certain as to what the footage is showing. The next morning, however, he tells them that he has been informed that the act of them capturing the occurrence was illegal and thus he has blocked it entirely from being televised. With that, the furious Richard accuses him of participating in a cover-up and storms off. Later on, he steals the film reel from storage in order to bring it in front of a pair of nuclear experts so that they can properly decipher what is going on. Kimberly, meanwhile, decides to carry out a bit of proactive investigative journalism by interviewing Jack for comment.
As they attempt to get to the bottom of this concerning incident, it soon becomes apparent that the powers-that-be are willing to take more drastic steps in order to protect their profit margins by ensuring that the truth doesn’t leak out.
Watch a trailer:
Based on a real-life incident
The China Syndrome was inspired by an incident at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, Alabama in 1975 which nearly resulted in a reactor meltdown. “The China Syndrome” is a term for such a meltdown: as the theory goes, the result would be that the radioactive molten core burrows its way through the Earth’s crust until it re-emerges in China. In a rather eerie sense of timing, another - even more notorious - nuclear incident occurred at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania on March 28th, 1979, just twelve days after the film’s theatrical launch date.
It’s a film which feels very much of the 1970s in terms of its style. This is both in a good and bad way - but mostly good. It seamlessly mixes and matches from several genres and tropes of the decade: the “ambitious reporter looking for a big story” film e.g. The Parallax View (1974) and Network (1976), the industrial-complex paranoia thriller e.g. Blue Collar (1978) and Alien (1979), and the disaster movie e.g. The Towering Inferno and Earthquake (both 1974). Some aspects, such as the occasionally obvious evenly-lit studio sets and the incongruously upbeat pop track playing over the opening credits, do seem a little cheesy nowadays. Nonetheless, it still holds up well as an intelligent thriller which taps effectively into understandable real-world concerns about nuclear power.
The most notable aspect of The China Syndrome is the quality of its acting. Both Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon got nominated for Oscars - and they do indeed turn in spot-on performances. Fonda seamlessly switches between her bubbly soft news persona and the compassionate-yet-determined trooper which is her character’s true self. Lemmon, in one of his best serious acting roles, seems believably fraught as a middle-aged plant boss who finds himself torn between loyalty to his job and voicing his own legitimate safety concerns. The third major role here is taken by Michael Douglas, who had also produced the film in the wake of winning a Best Picture Academy Award for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (although he wasn’t yet an A-lister in terms of his acting career at this time). While he may come across as being rather cocky and smarmy (in that typical Michael Douglas manner), there’s an unmistakable spark of fire and passion which brings its own energy to the film every time he’s on screen.
The exceptional performances tide us through James Bridges’ occasionally pedestrian and over-talky directorial approach. Bridges fares better when he focuses on technology (the contrasting control rooms for both the TV studio and the nuclear plant), action and suspense. The third act is a true nail-biter as it strings protracted tension through a pair of car chases, a SWAT team raid, another plant mishap, an attempt to blow the cover-up live on-air and a counter-attempt by those in power to put the lid back on it by denouncing one of the protagonists as crazy. It is here that the film is lifted from the level of worthy and well-acted issue movie to truly compelling cinema.
While The China Syndrome isn’t quite the masterpiece that its reputation suggests, it still entertains and provokes in equal measure. It is also highly relevant to this day; while the more recent (2011) Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan caused many to pause for thought, the resultant backlash hasn’t gained as much long-term traction as it should have done. As such, we are still at risk of such calamities occurring again somewhere down the line.
Runtime: 122 mins
Dir: James Bridges
Script: Mike Gray, T.S. Cook, James Bridges
Starring: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas, Wilford Brimley, Scott Brady, James Hampton, Peter Donat, Richard Herd, Daniel Valdez, James Karen
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The picture looks pretty sharp, albeit with a slightly orange tinge about it (which, granted, was probably in keeping with the original colour grading).
The John Player Lecture with Jack Lemmon
This audio interview with the actor is played over the film in commentary track style. As Indicator mention themselves on an opening card, it has some audio technical issues. However, it’s worth listening to if you have the time, if only for his entertaining anecdote related to him having an argument with notorious Columbia Pictures mogul Harry Cohn over whether or not to change his screen name. It seems that Cohn felt that his surname would tempt critics towards using it for such cheap shot lines as “Lemmon is a Lemon”!
Assessing the Fallout
Cold War propaganda historian Tony Shaw takes a look at the politics surrounding The China Syndrome’s release in this excellent featurette. The writer, Mike Gray, was a liberal documentary filmmaker who intended his script to be a docudrama uncovering what he termed an “energy-media complex”. At the time, many corporate interests derided the film as sensationalist. However, after the Three Mile Island incident occurred at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania shorter following its release, images were frequently appropriated from it for US news stories and even Soviet anti-American propaganda. Actress Jane Fonda also capitalised on the film’s success to add weight to her own anti-nuclear activism.
A Fusion of Talent
This documentary features interviews with Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda and others involved with the film, who discuss how it came together. Douglas reveals that the script interested him as he felt it was like a monster movie where the nuclear plant was the monster. Richard Dreyfuss was originally going to star as a TV producer character but dropped out. Jane Fonda and executive producer Bruce Gilbert came aboard because they were originally working on their own anti-nuclear film inspired by the real-life story of plant worker Karen Silkwood, which had Fonda playing a newscaster. However, an executive at Columbia suggested that they meld their ideas into the production of The China Syndrome. Thus, Fonda’s character from their script was incorporated into the latter film as a substitute for Dreyfuss’s role.
Fonda also reveals that the idea of her character having a pet turtle was inspired by her ex-husband Roger Vadim’s girlfriend Gwen Welles owning one of the creatures, and that she had a long-standing crush on Jack Lemmon from watching him acting alongside her father Henry on the set of Mr. Roberts.
Creating a Controversy
Douglas, Fonda at al discuss the film’s production as well as its real-life controversy and legacy. Since the filmmakers (unsurprisingly) were unable to get permission to shoot on a real nuclear plant, the one we see in the film was mocked up via matte paintings, a two-storey set and some Richard Edlund miniatures. However, these were derived from photographs which production designer George Jenkins took during a guided tour of an actual plant in Oregon.
While a musical score was created for the production, James Bridges decided not to use it (other than the poppy title track) as he felt that it detracted from the realistic feel. He also cut a number of Jack Lemmon’s scenes and, as a result, the actor refused to do any promotional work. However, he soon came around when he saw how critically and commercially successful it was. When executive producer Bruce Gilbert heard about the Three Mile Island disaster, he was initially concerned because the sequence of steps that led to the incident was alarmingly similar to those seen in his film, leading him to believe that they were a deliberate act of sabotage.
There are three deleted scenes here, two involving conversations between Jack (Jack Lemmon) and his work buddy Ted (Wilford Brimley) about the incident at the plant. The third (and most entertaining) features Jane Fonda as Kimberley Wells pushing a touchy-feely drunk party guest into a swimming pool.
An enclosed booklet, theatrical trailer and image gallery round out the extras.
It’s yet another very worthwhile Indicator release of a film which seems to have slipped off many radars in the years since its release.