Review: The China Syndrome

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

The China Syndrome didn’t have to be about nuclear power. A serviceable suspense thriller about a few people’s public responsibility—or lack thereof—could be built on any number of contemporary issues. Nuclear power works so spectacularly well here, however, because of its enormity of risk. Proponents of nuclear power like to dramatize its safety by comparing it with other forms of energy, in which far fewer precautions are taken and to which—so far—more people have succumbed than to nuclear accidents. But that’s like comparing the airplane with the car: everyone knows flying is safer than driving, but if an accident does occur the extent and the likelihood of damage and death are much greater in the air than on the highway. Much of The China Syndrome is built upon the rhetoric of pro-nuclear assertions of safety, which have made the term “safe” so ambiguous as to be meaningless. If an accident actually occurs, it doesn’t matter how great the odds were against it. The film suggests that those oft-repeated declarations of nuclear safety rest not upon the actual fact of safety but upon having said and heard the declarations so many times. Even the plant operators feel safe, and utter the same platitudes as the corporate executives and their public spokesmen, as if saying it often enough makes it so.

Section supervisor Jack Goodell (Jack Lemmon) becomes a pivotal figure because he seeks evidence of safety, not just mouthed assurance. The film is less than steady, however, when it depicts his decision to blow the whistle on unsafe equipment in the plant as arising from a moral dilemma of divided loyalty, because he knows the plant is unsafe: he’s seen the shaking turbines, the faked documents—and so have we. This is what turns The China Syndrome into a simplistic thriller instead of a complex and challenging study of real characters. Had there remained some doubt in our minds about whether Goodell really was crazy or not, the film might have had more flesh on its bones. As it is, it seems to place all its impact upon asking the question, Would any of our power corporations really take such a great risk with public safety in order to save money? and answering Hell yes! It’s a pity the answer is couched in formulaic terms that summon up remembrance of The Parallax View, All the President’s Men, Capricorn One and just about any episode of Lou Grant in which all reporters are crusading heroes acting in the public interest, all corporate executives are money-grabbing, conscienceless villains, and all public relations people are sanctimonious toadies.

This one-dimensional approach not only detracts from the weight of the film’s moral vision, but also is inconsistent with the screenplay’s much more interesting nod to another critical issue of public responsibility: the idea of news reporting as performance. The program director of the TV station where Kimberley Wells (Jane Fonda) works cuts her off when she is asked a question about the station’s civic responsibility, saying, “She doesn’t make policy—she’s a performer.” She doesn’t think of herself that way—as most reporters don’t—but after all, the news is a show, like any other, and it has to win viewers and make money. This concern is carried through in the film’s climax when the nail-biting suspense is based less on whether the nuclear plant will blow us all up, or on whether the SWAT team will slip in and kill Jack Goodell who has taken control of the plant, than on our anxiety—and the reporters’—about whether or not the show will go on in time. It does, just barely, but Goodell’s public statement is too technical, too nervously halting, too unrehearsed to come across. He fails to prevent another “accident,” and fails to alert the public to the dangers of the nuclear plant, precisely because he is not a good performer. Director James Bridges and co-scenarists Mike Gray and T.S. Cook just might be saying that the news media haven’t yet succeeded in scaring the public enough about nuclear power, but good performers—like Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, James Bridges—might just be able to do the job.

Well, the film is certainly scary enough, and has become, ironically, a rallying point for opponents of nuclear power. Ironically, because the upshot of the whole episode with the poorly constructed and fraudulently certified plant is just what Goodell tells Wells early on in one of the best scenes in the film, and one of Jack Lemmon’s finest moments: “The system works.” Despite all the danger, chicanery, and conspiracy, the system does work. Even at the climax of the film, when total disaster would be too good a fate for the company executives and their cronies, the system shuts itself down when the point of crisis is reached. One of the turbines collapses, but there is no catastrophe, not even any radiation leakage. Which is more than we can say for the accident at Three Mile Island, so well-timed with the national release of the film that it has to be the most dramatic unplanned promotional campaign in history. Life doesn’t imitate art: it goes it one better.

© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow

THE CHINA SYNDROME
Direction: James Bridges. Screenplay: Mike Gray, T.S. Cook and James Bridges, after a story by Gray. Cinematography: James Crabe. Production design: George Jenkins. Editing: David Rawlins. Production: Michael Douglas.
The players: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas, Wilford Brimley, Peter Donat, Scott Brady, James Hampton, Richard Herd, Daniel Valdez.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.