[This article was written for and appeared in the May-June 1979 issue (Volume 15, Number 3) of Film Comment.]
“The China Syndrome is a moderately compelling thriller about the potential perils of nuclear energy, whose major fault is an overweening sense of its own self-importance. Superior performances by Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas (who also produced) in the lead roles, accentuated by ultra-realistic production values[,] should propel the Columbia Pictures release to some b.o. success, but the message ‘overload’ is going to scare off other patrons.”
—Poll., Variety, March 7, 1979
“Douglas boasts that ‘you won’t be able to distinguish our presentation of the news from your own evening viewing.’ … He has a premonition, he says, that ‘a lot of what’s in this picture will be reenacted in life somewhere in the next two or three years.”
—Michael Douglas, quoted in Reddy News, Jan.-Feb. 1979
“That thing in Pennsylvania is just too much of a coincidence.”
—anonymous patron, Northgate Theatre, Seattle, after the 9:15 show, March 30, 1979
The China Syndrome opened nationally on March 16, 1979. Advance interest ran high. The casting sounded exciting, talkshow drumbeating had been provocative and selectively closemouthed at the same time, and the title had a ring even if, as the promo spots kept repeating every half hour, “only a few people know what it means.” A lot more people wanted to find out, which suited Columbia Pictures just fine.
The subject matter proved to have nothing to do with our new kissin’ cousins on the Chinese mainland or, as the preview art may have suggested, more sci-fi sperm from outer space. Nuclear energy supplied the narrative battleground—nuclear energy, its inherent dangers, the likelihood of catastrophe at a specific power plant. More precisely, the specter of nuclear catastrophe raised the narrative ante on the real subject: the collaboration of greed, stubbornness, bureaucratic obfuscation, job paranoia, perimeter-protecting, institutional loyalty, and native stupidity in aggravating an already perilous situation, virtually confirming us in disaster.
“The China syndrome”? That’s the technosardonic designation of what could happen if the nuclear core of a reactor became drastically overheated, melted down, burned its way through the concrete floor of its containment tower, and kept on going—hyperbolically speaking, all the way to China, or until it hit groundwater and exploded radioactive steam and waste over several hundred square miles.
Interesting. Less than two weeks into its run, The China Syndrome had grossed $11 mil. Then came a crooked smile of serendipity that transformed the picture from just another top-grossing flick into a news event, and eerie prophecy.
Around hour-of-the-wolf time on March 28, in a nuclear energy plant on an island in the Susquehanna River, the atomic shit began edging toward the fan. A series of human errors and mechanical failures uncannily similar to those proposed in the movie created the conditions for a meltdown of the core. Whether in fact a meltdown began remains unclear (along with a great deal else) as this magazine goes to press. But some things cannot be denied: that low-level radiation escaped from the Three Mile Island facility near Middletown, Pa.; that thousands of area residents (i.e. within a 20-to-30-mile radius) initiated an exodus and the State Government was forced to consider plans for official evacuation; that many levelheaded Americans with scant propensity for melodrama or radic-lib doomsaying confronted the notion of a radioactive pall blanketing a goodly portion of one of the original 13 Colonies, and rendering it inaccessible for the next several lifetimes.
It was really happening; Walter Cronkite said so. The China Syndrome‘s trailer became part of a CBS Reports special. And Columbia Pictures, though refraining from overtly capitalizing on the Three Mile Island incident, reaped the greatest topical publicity coup since Roosevelt and Churchill pitched camp in a North African burg named Casablanca. Word-of-mouth reached plague proportions. The film had it all down, baby! I mean, was there a gleam in the eye of that actor who got to read the line, “It could render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable”?
The critic has a good shot at influencing the verdict of the ages, but he feels his immediate irrelevancy nowhere more acutely than in the midst of several thousand people having a visceral experience with a China Syndrome. These people are getting it on. They came to the film primed to get it on. They would feel left out of the mainstream of American life if they failed to get it on. The critic can tell them it isn’t a very good movie, but if anyone happens to hear him, they’ll be mystified. They’re getting it on: isn’t that proof it’s a good movie?
The China Syndrome isn’t a very good movie. It may have a decisive impact on which way America settles down to feel about nuclear energy, but that doesn’t make it good. It doesn’t even make it honest, and it certainly doesn’t make getting it on very wholesome.
There is no questioning, and no reason to quarrel with, the fact that the filmmakers share a very strong anti-nuclear, sometimes anti-technological point of view: The specifically anti-nuclear and generally activist stances of stars Fonda, Lemmon, and Douglas (who produced, with Fonda’s associate, Bruce Gilbert) scarcely need belaboring. The original story idea was Mike (The Murder of Fred Hampton) Gray’s; it was subsequently polished into salable screenplay form by T.S. Cook, then reworked by Jane Fonda and James Bridges to turn a key male role (once intended for Richard Dreyfuss) into a femme role for Fonda. Writer-director Bridges (“This is a monster movie and technology is the monster”) had earlier written the screenplay for Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), a deft sf number about a pair of computers taking over the world.
What we must quarrel with is the heartless, devious, and appallingly manipulative manner in which the authors of the film have drawn their good-guys-and-bad-guys battlelines, then awarded the viewer a decoration every time he picks the right army.
The nuclear heavies operate with, and are characterized with, stupefying dullness. It is possible to trace The China Syndrome‘s subtler methodology only through a fringe villain, Don Jacovich (Peter Donat), head of the L.A. television station that happens to have a media team at the Ventana power plant when something—the first, admonitory accident, as it turns out—takes place. The cameraman, a hip freelance named Richard Adams (Douglas), surreptitiously films the frenzy of the control-room personnel as they move to contain the crisis. He and glamour-girl reporter Kimberly Wells (Fonda) rush back to the station convinced they have a terrific scoop, the first decent hard-news story in months. Jacovich examines their footage and concurs, up to a point: “It looks like a great hard-news story—but we don’t know what it is. It would be totally irresponsible to go on the air without checking the facts.”
There has been no public disclosure of accident, incident, whatever, at the Ventana plant. We, who got to be on both sides of the soundproof glass in the control room, know how big a story there is; besides, this is an exposé movie, and it’s barely begun! But Jacovich’s prudence at this point is eminently commendable. It’s not hard to imagine crusty Lou Grant, having returned to WJM-TV taking the same position: “A buncha guys jumpin’ around and you’re gonna say, ‘Something happened there today—too bad we don’t know what it was!'”
Instead of avuncular Ed Asner, Jacovich is played by the overbred-looking Peter Donat who, if they were making Roman epics these days, would have the corner on decadent senators. We next glimpse his patrician physiognomy in sinister conversation with a nuke p.r. man, in an offcenter Pakula-style window above the station’s news set. The following day, he announces that the footage is dead; the power company has released a press statement about a “routine transient” and that is that. Before reasonable argument can begin, the bearded Richard brands Jacovich “a chickenshit asshole,” and the ruling-class features turn to stone; a monolithic defense of his authority will now preclude any discussion of Jacovich’s decision.
(For this viewer, at least, Richard’s “very independent” act had already grown tedious, but the filmmakers programmatically plug away at his adolescent smartmouth number as an earnest of righteousness. In all three audiences I watched the film with, at least part of the crowd was cheering his every “Kiss my ass!” Indeed, our first indication—aside from the casting of Fonda—that Kimberly Wells is not to be taken as a mere plastic mannequin is her forthright “Shit!” when she blows a line on location. And as long as we’re scuffing up the niceties of the English language, is there some radical virtue in pronouncing nuclear “nucular,” as Douglas does throughout?)
The coup de grâce to Jacovich as respectable voice of moderation is administered via a party for select station personnel at his lavishly appointed home. After a luxury-indicting track along a groaning board of prime rib and the like (the Julia syndrome), the scene settles down to a confab between Kimberly and her boss on the living-room couch. He’s congratulating her on the “brilliance” of her spot about a tiger’s birthday at the zoo, and also mentions that he was going to have Richard fired until he learned he wasn’t on the station staff; Kimberly is trying to mollify him about Richard, and hazards some low-key flirting while pressing to be taken off soft news and given a chance at investigative journalism. None of this is news to us. The sole point of the scene is to display Jacovich at such male chauvinist overkill that henceforth we shall be unable to consider him in any other light: how could such a piggie have a correct opinion about anything?
Which brings us to one of the major failings of the movie, even as pop tract: Bridges & Co. have such a portmanteau sense of outrage that they’ve scrambled their villainies. This is scarcely to suggest that the film should have neglected the complexities of the nuclear-energy world, located a single Mabusian core of moral and ethical contamination, and mounted its assault against that. But the nuclear family of malefactors described by The China Syndrome isn’t complex—it’s just confused.
Where does the power company’s venality leave off and the sloppy security habits of the construction firm that built the plant take up? How much does the utility strive to pull the wool over the Nuclear Regulatory Commission examiners’ eyes, and to what extent does the NRC act reflexively to safeguard the mystique of atomic power? Is the pig media so steeped in commercialism that they sup with the corporate devil without batting an eye, or has the crafting of media event—be it a birthday party for a tiger, an anti-nuke demonstration regrouped for the camera, or the TelePrompTed happy-talk of the anchorman become so formulaic that they no longer know what to do with reality when it offers to blow up right in their face?
All of these questions are valid; maybe all of them even belong in the same movie. But they’re not articulated here, just slurred together, so that, for instance, when a slowly awakened plant employee vows, after the climactic tragedy, that “There’s gonna be an [other] investigation and the truth’ll come out this time!”, the audience is divided between cheering and wondering why the poor sap thinks “this time” will be any different. Irony? Ambivalence? Those postures must be rigorously earned. The China Syndrome works only by shunting the audience from one adrenalin charge to the next.
It also shamelessly sucks up to its audience—a tactic the effect of which has been powerfully reinforced by the Three Mile Island incident. People are primed for this movie because not since the fall of Nixon has there been a nearly universal focus for our congenital sense of mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore. Nuclear contamination, possibly imminent, yet even now swaddled in a security blanket of bureaucratic doubletalk and just plain shortage of reliable information—it’s the next-best thing to having a clearly identified enemy to hate in a good, clean war. There’s a war and we all want to win it. And we can do so, or at least feel we’re doing so, simply by going to this movie together and laughing in the right places.
That first turbine-trip crisis inadvertently witnessed by the news team gives rise to an investigation whose swiftness startles even some plant employees. Before it is concluded, control-room supervisor Jack Godell (Lemmon)—former submarine commander and easy candidate for any elite he might care to join—discusses investigation politics with Ted Spindler (Wilford Brimley), a valued member of his team even though he’d look more at home minding a general store. Lacking anything like Godell’s career éclat, a mere twenty-five-year company man who simply hung onto his job as the utility shifted to nuclear power, Spindler fears he will be the sacrificial victim when someone must be charged with human error. “What makes you think they’re looking for a scapegoat?” Godell wants to know. Spindler, after judicious pause behind caterpillar mustache: “Tradition.”
The line gets a laugh every time—a knowing laugh. Tradition is virtually synonymous with corruption, “the system”; “they” have been doing it to us Capraesque little punks for centuries. As a rhetorical gesture the moment is contemptible; but it draws a certain validity not only from the irony that it is Godell, not Spindler, who will ultimately play the scapegoat, but also from Godell-Lemmon and Spindler-Brimley being the only two figures worthy of our interest and concern.
And it is here that the sucking-up tactics tend to backfire on the film’s few humane sentiments. Godell becomes a far more effective investigator than the media muckrakers, and what he discovers breaks his heart. When Kimberly and Richard corner him in his bachelor bungalow he sags resignedly in his kitchenette and confesses: “I love that plant. It’s my whole life.” So conditioned is the audience by now that anything “nucular” rates a sneer, this conscientious, palpably agonizing man is overrun in the rush to guffaw at his first four words.
If I have conducted an uncharacteristically Kaelian survey of this movie, taking seismic readings of the audience, rather than sticking to what’s onscreen, that’s partly because what’s onscreen is so deficient as cinema. The China Syndrome is a 122-minute movie with a single interesting image: the concentric rings on the surface of Jack Godell’s coffee registering the otherwise undetected secondary vibration from the turbine trip, bespeaking subtler, more dangerous disturbances in the works.
Otherwise, James Bridges’ film is tacky, tacky. Invaluable Pakula collaborator George Jenkins has designed a convincing nuclear power plant, but the best art director in the world still relies on a decent camera eye to realize the potential of his imaginative environment. If Bridges had managed to keep Gordon Willis, the cinematographer of The Paper Chase and 9/30/55, his new film would have had a better chance at developing the cinematic resonances the subject deserved. John Avildsen’s James Crabe got the job, and the result is a TV movie on theater screens. And the performers are visually brutalized.
In one important sense, The China Syndrome is a TV movie. It begins and ends with color bars on a monitor, and much of the action is not only narrated through the activities of the media people but actually observed on TV screens. The audience is treated to such insiderish glimpses as the method by which those earnest interviewer nods and frowns are obtained long after the interview subject has departed the scene. At another point, in typical confusion, Bridges portrays Kimberly Wells’s last-minute arrival on the six-o’clock news with Radio Ranch frenzy, then invites us to giggle at the news team’s orderly procession onto their set.
It took Fellini’s 8 1/2 to show some of us arthouse viewers that a director could make a movie about making his movie. Only later did we catch on that just about every director worth his salt had been doing that for years. By not exactly parallel token, The China Syndrome will probably strike a lot of general viewers as the first time they have seen a movie about media (perhaps second, allowing for Network). It’s part of the Truth the film offers—and if the movie in its blunt way should raise consciousness about media methods rather than perpetrating a new hybrid smugness, good.
Unfortunately, The China Syndrome is rotten at the core; its own media logic is inchoate. When the Ventana plant experiences its first accident, Bridges gears up for a suspense montage. Actors grimace and sweat in closeup: annunciators blink in glittery banks, or engulf the frame with their single, sinister messages; Richard and Kimberly gaze through a sheen of soundproof glass in helpless bewilderment. But the scene is “tense,” not tense. We don’t know what the hell is happening. Fair enough, insofar as none of the characters quite does either, but ultimately not fair enough, not adequate, since Bridges relies solely on our dread of something Atomic happening to give the montage a charge. On first viewing, knowing little or nothing of the scenario, one watches with bated breath; the next time, one discovers there’s nothing to watch.
I first saw The China Syndrome the evening of March 30, when general awareness of the Three Mile Island accident was probably at its height. I was scared. The movie could have been a lot more unsatisfying as cinema, and still involved me completely.
As it happens, I was set up for it. A week ago, I’d returned to the Northwest from a brief journey home, the first in several years. Home, after fourteen years in Seattle, is still Pennsylvania. I’d even driven into the present danger zone to visit one of my best friends, and taken his picture against a landscape he’d recently described in a letter as the most beautiful he’d ever seen.
The charms of that landscape would be lost on a lot of my neighbors in the theater, as the charms of theirs are largely lost on me. That has never bothered me: you don’t have to go home again, because you can never quite leave it. But I was bothered that night at the theater because the reality I knew in Pennsylvania had no effective existence for the China Syndrome audience. As they took their signals from the film, and shuddered with a kind of gleeful hysteria at the correspondences between what was on the film’s TV screens and what was on their own TVs at home, we all edged through the looking glass. The China Syndrome ceased to be a prophecy of nuclear catastrophe that could rob us of a piece of the world (and of my life); instead, Three Mile Island became a media adjunct to The China Syndrome.
And the sense of that cheap-thrill dislocation in the audience was far scarier than atomic threat.
That’s why I wanted to talk about what The China Syndrome does. I do not for a moment doubt the sincere concern and passion to illuminate nuclear darkness that motivated the film’s cast and crew. But the most terrible of several media ironies—intentional and unintentional, achieved or misfired—reverberating from the film is that, far from helping its audience become better enlightened citizens, it reinforces a lethal complacency, a totentanz with unreality.
Copyright © 1979 by Richard T. Jameson