Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Steelyard Blues

[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]

Steelyard Blues has occasioned the most dramatic instance of critical backlash in recent memory. Reviewers of contrary political persuasions (to the extent that political bent can be determined from film reviews) have proved to be up to here with the agitprop antics of Jane Fonda and, perhaps, her FTA compatriot Donald Sutherland. At any rate, Steelyard Blues has been pelted with the sort of abusive notice all those pointyhead libberulls once visited on The Green Berets. To one who took a look at the film anyway, the phenomenon is more than a little appalling. For, if Steelyard Blues is indeed, as Molly Haskell observed, so cinematically inept that one feels compelled to pick it up and take care of it, it’s nevertheless a thoroughly likeable, enjoyable, goodnatured event of a highly positive nature.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Essays, Film Reviews

China Is Near

The Japanese poster to "The China Syndrome"

[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.

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Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Julia

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Whatever Lillian Hellman’s attitude about herself may be—in Pentimento and elsewhere—Fred Zinnemann’s Julia is at pains to glamorize her. Not only is she played by a woman much more attractive than she ever was; her struggling pre-fame days are also recounted in glossy, romantic terms that revere her (with the comfort of hindsight) as a famous, successful playwright, as the mistress of a famous writer, and as a courageous ur-liberal who performs a daring anti-fascist act long before it became fashionable even to be anti-fascist. There is no denying that the self-congratulatory tone that seeps into Hellman’s monologue and dialogue in Julia is already present in Pentimento; and Jane Fonda has brought off a splendid achievement in portraying the young Lillian Hellman not as the young Lillian Hellman but as the older Lillian Hellman’s impression of her younger self.

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Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Coming Home

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Like Bound for Glory, Hal Ashby’s latest attempt at chronicling the moods of an era is an honest if ham-handed effort. As in Shampoo, a love triangle becomes emblematic of the political and social polarities of a nation at the crossroads (an idea that was old before Doctor Zhivago). Coming Home also shares with Shampoo a self-deluding sense of its own importance and originality; it says nothing about Vietnam and the Sixties that hasn’t been said for the past ten years, and speaks only to those who already know, and feel, more than Ashby’s film ever manages to express. Nevertheless, the powerfully acted love story between officer’s wife Sally Hyde (Fonda) and wounded vet Luke Martin (Voight) is tenderly felt, a welling-up of joy tinged with the guilt of infidelity that reflects the larger, less overt guilt of rebellion against Uncle Sam and all that he stands for. There’s an important truth here: Sally changes her whole lifestyle, and her convictions, not out of a moral or political commitment, but because she falls in love—just as opposition to the Vietnam War was initially grounded in personal attachment to the people whose lives were wasted there, while the sense of moral outrage came later, an extension and justification of the more concrete personal resistance. It’s something Ashby and scenarists seem to recognize in making Luke Martin someone Sally knows from high school; and the Fellini-esque airport sequence of the dead and wounded coming home together (Haskell Wexler’s finest moment in an uncharacteristically pedestrian job of cinematography) recognizes the basis of American opposition to the war in the searing intimacy of the suffering of friends and neighbors, lovers, husbands, sons.

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Posted in: Film Reviews

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.

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Posted in: Film Reviews, Westerns

Review: The Electric Horseman

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

Horse comes over the horizon and slants down into the golden valley, right there I figure Sydney Pollack auteur time, whoa up. I mean, if Sydney Pollack can be an auteur, it isn’t worth being one. But he wants it, oh, he can taste it. He cranes, he tracks, he dissolves. (They shoot auteurs, don’t they?) All right, enough funnin’, let’s fess up and concede that after enough films get made and enough thematic and syntactical evidence piles up, there gets to be somebody there you can recognize, and that’s Sydney Pollack. The guy has a style. Whether that style has much to do with style in the richest, most analytical and mystical senses of the word is another question. But a style he has: slick, thin; getting to be rather touching in its naïve pretentiousness; suited to keeping movies moving, and hence giving his films a leg up when it comes down to the competitive question of which movie should I go to, which film in the local triple or sextuple shopping-mall cinema is likeliest to keep me entertained. Entertained, goddam it, not edified, no matter how much the entertainer may strive to be taken for an edifier as well. The Electric Horseman entertains better than almost anything else that’s twinkled onto the scene this Christmas season. The key factors in this—gorgeous, adorable, intelligent, watchably changeable, iconically constant factors—are a couple of stars who would have been stars even when the Hollywood firmament was filled with them. REDFORD : FONDA : ELECTRIC say the ads. Believe them. And this time believe Sydney Pollack, too.

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Posted in: Westerns

Review: Comes a Horseman

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

The title of Alan J Pakula’s latest film echoes the old stock melodrama line “Along comes Jones” and that’s no accident. Here we have a tough-but-tender cowgirl working her dead father’s ranch with only a lovable grizzled old coot for a ranchhand; a somber villain moving through his dark house like Dracula in his castle, hatching designs on the heroine’s land as well as her body; a land-grabbing industrialist conspiring with the local banker to turn rangeland into oil wells; a tall, quiet wrangler winning the girl’s heart and saving her land to boot; singing cowboys, fireside heart-to-hearts, a crisis with hero and heroine trapped by villain in a burning building, a climactic shootout, and boy-gets-girl. From the tentative cynicism of The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, Pakula hasreturned with a vengeance to the romantic melodrama of his earlier films, all characterized by essentially corny ideas handled in an utterly uncorny manner. Kluteand Comes a Horsemanare but two special cases of the same basic plot overlay: tough professional man saves woman from villainy and from herself, winning her heart in the process. And The Sterile Cuckoo, Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, Klute, andComes a Horsemanmay all be seen as variations on the theme of simple, direct man dealing with complex, independent woman.

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