The China Syndrome (1979)

china-syndrome

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: He senses the vibration.

Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) is a television news reporter who along with Richard (Michael Douglas) her cameraman gets a chance to go inside a nuclear power plant and film its operations. While inside they witness the plant going through an emergency shutdown when the coolant to one of the nuclear reactors becomes dangerously low. Richard secretly films the nervous reactions of the men in the control room during the incident and wants to broadcast the footage on the news, but the station managers refuse for fear they might get sued. Later Kimberly comes into contact with Jack (Jack Lemmon) who is a shift supervisor at the plant and he informs her that the welds on the pumps are compromised and could lead to a core meltdown at some point. Richard, Kimberly and Jack then conspire to somehow get this information out to the public before it is too late while also avoiding those who wish to silence them.

One of the things I really enjoyed about this film is the way it remains completely realistic throughout and never once compromises anything simply for the sake of cheap drama. The behind-the-scenes politics of an on air news show is quite fascinating particularly how it is decided what constitutes ‘news’ and what doesn’t as well as the staff’s pecking-order and how an individual reporter has limited say on what topics they can actually report on.

The inside of the power plant is impressive particularly the scene where Jack goes inside the massive pump room to investigate a leak. The control room looks quite authentic and the film’s final twenty-five minutes take place solely inside of it, which makes for a gripping climax.

The film also has the distinction of having no musical soundtrack. Other than a song by Stephan Bishop which is played at the beginning there is no other music to be heard and quite frankly I didn’t miss it at all. The sound of the power plant’s emergency alarm going off is all that is needed to create tension and having the closing credits scroll to a deadening silence leaves a powerful impact. Apparently a score was composed by Michael Small, but it was rejected and rightly so as I listened to some of it and it had way too much of a disco sound and didn’t fit the theme at all.

The stars are excellent, but I was surprised how Fonda’s part gets increasingly pared down as the movie progresses. Douglas steals it away from her during an angry confrontation with his superiors, but ultimately Lemmon is the real star even though it deceptively doesn’t start out that way. The supporting cast is equally good including Wilford Brimley as a loyal, but quiet employee, Scott Brady as the cantankerous plant manager and Richard Herd as the steely and conniving owner.

As for the merits of the film’s message it’s hard to say. What was once a hot/trendy topic during the ‘70s and ‘80s now seems long forgotten. However, the script still brings up many good points no matter what one’s political leanings are and it’s great to watch a film that can be intelligent and entertaining at the same time without ever going overboard on either end.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: March 16, 1979

Runtime: 2Hours 2Minutes

Rated PG

Director: James Bridges

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Region 0), Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

One response to “The China Syndrome (1979)

  1. Joseph Kearny

    Far better than Silkwood. The last part of the film is genuinely unsettling. Lemon and Fonda are terrific.

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