Technology is a wonderful tool to have and the enhancements that come along with said technology can influence the world and bring about dramatic change that can have everlasting effects. If you didn’t realize it, last month marked the 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster; the worst nuclear accident to ever occur in human history. The effects of the Chernobyl disaster have been felt all across Europe and many lessons were learned at the unfortunate cost of human life. Thinking about Chernobyl made me recall a film that was released years prior to that disaster but one that even predicted such an event, fictionally yet accurately depicted in the film, that occurred in the United States. That film is the 1979 thriller The China Syndrome.
So, what makes The China Syndrome a standout film? What do we learn when viewing this movie and how does it relate to today? And, how in the world can a film regarding a fictional event feel so relevant to an actual disaster that occurred a mere twelve days following the release of The China Syndrome? That disaster was the Three Mile Island Incident.
The China Syndrome takes place in Los Angles where a local news reporter named Kimberley Wells (Jane Fonda) is showcasing the fun stories that occur within the Los Angeles area. Kimberley is eager to delve into actual news reporting instead of the meager assignments that she’s given. One day, she and her cameraman named Richard (Michael Douglas) visit the Ventana Nuclear Power Plant to showoff this amazing facility to the people in the City of Angels. The assignment basically consists of visiting the plant, interviewing key personnel who work at the facility and give the people a tour of what happens at the plant.
Nuclear Power is a marvel to just imagine. It would make the United States energy independent with these massive power plants being built all across the country and with them being declared “perfectly safe” the people should never suspect that anything could go wrong or their lives ever be threatened. Upon viewing the plant and taking us on a tour, Kimberley and her crew and stunned at just how massive the plant really is, not to mention the knowledge of working in a power plant.
In essence, nuclear power generates electricity via a delicate balancing act. This balancing act has to be perfect otherwise the entire system could go haywire. Upon viewing the control room, the news crew is informed that they aren’t allowed to film inside. Everything is running normal until a SCRAM alarm is sounded. A SCRAM is an emergency shutdown of this “balancing act” that allows electricity to be made. While the news crew views this alarming situation, questions begin to emerge and with the alarms blaring and even the grounds of the plant vibrating, it doesn’t appear to be anything that plant workers would call “normal”.
After everything settles down, the plant appears to be fine. All instruments are working properly, the balancing act hasn’t been harmed and business is ready to continue. Kimberley and her cameraman Richard aren’t so sure, and Richard was secretly taping the entire incident. I won’t mention specifics regarding the plot from this point but what ensues is an investigation into what happened during the SCRAM, why it happened and what was the result. Many questions are asked and are needed to be answered and one man who does pursue in asking questions is the plant supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon).
As the film plays out, we are treated to two specific workplaces and how they operate. On one hand, you have the news outlet that Kimberley works for. We see her anchor the afternoon news and reports on the stories that she has for the day. On the other hand, we get to see how the Nuclear Power Plant operates and how the workers react when something strange happens. We also get an immense amount of education so that we can understand how each job functions. I was highly impressed with viewing the newsroom and seeing all the reporters, editors and personnel handling the stressful job of delivering the news to the public; something that reminded me of my media classes I took back in High School.
Additionally, I loved seeing the Nuclear Facility and learning about how it works and the measures at which the executives of the company that runs the plant will do anything in order to conceal the actual truth so that they can keep up production, which of course, makes them more money. Not only is The China Syndrome a great and engaging thriller, but it also grants the audience of investigating what is occurring and urging us to talk about the idea that are detailed throughout the course of the film.
In terms of subject matter, the plant itself is in a precarious situation. We sense that there is a problem and the people of Los Angeles have a right to know what is going on. When it’s revealed, the truth is shocking, appalling and should make the audience angry. Jack Godell has some questions of his own and at the behest of his boss, he lies when Kimberley meets with him at the local watering hole where the plant workers gather after their shift.
The movie explores the safety and regulations of the Nuclear Power Plant, the inner workings of the newsroom and even gives a bump to women as we see Kimberley not backing down from this story that literally dropped at her feet! She’s only assigned the stories that are meant to educate and entertain the viewers and is constantly told to not pursue the story of what happened at the Ventana Nuclear Power Plant.
Although this movie was released in 1979, the subject matter still packs quite a punch. The acting is stellar, the plot isn’t as complicated as one might initially think, and did I mention that this film is actually quite scary. When the film was released on March 16, 1979, the response from the Nuclear Industry was backlash calling the film, “sheer fiction” and “a character assassination of an entire industry”. In an ironic and tragic twist, the Three Mile Incident occurred just twelve days after this film’s debut. After this incident became national news, The China Syndrome did become a hit at the box office and was well-received by critics. Although the film itself is fictional, it draws inspiration from the Dresden Plant which is outside of Chicago, a sequence in the film mirrors the real-life event. One of the film’s screenwriters, T.S. Cook worked as an engineer and used his experience and knowledge when contributing to the film’s script; especially during the SCRAM sequence where we hear a great number of technical terms. A scary moment for people who are unfamiliar with such terminology.
Outside of the subject matter in the movie, The China Syndrome is an example of man vs corporation. The investigation to reveal the truth so that we can understand the broader picture is the exact same message that was clear in the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a film which Michael Douglas (who starred in The China Syndrome and co-produced it) produced years earlier. The China Syndrome is not only well-written but closely examines and asks crucial questions regarding nuclear power and how seeking the truth can lead to potentially dangerous occurrences.
In truth, scripts regarding nuclear power were being looked for, particularly by Jane Fonda who actively spoke out against nuclear power even though her character was originally written for a man which was later changed. Another story was in development during the late ‘70s and that was the story of Karen Silkwood, which was later made into the 1983 film Silkwood starring Meryl Streep in the title role.
Investigative films are among my favorite genre of films to watch simply because I love learning as much information as I can. With The China Syndrome we are given different points of view, one from the news reporters, the executives who run the Ventana Power Plant and Jack Godell’s pursuit of the truth all circle together into an explosive ending that is shocking, unforgettable and showcases one of finest moments in Jack Lemmon’s career. The China Syndrome is an important film that not only predicted the future, but remains a staple in showing at the lengths in which a corporation will go in order to protect their interests.
Whether you’re familiar with the Three Mile Incident or not, The China Syndrome is a movie that feels real even though it wasn’t intended to be. With outstanding direction, excellent acting and a superb sense of urgency, The China Syndrome is a movie that gets people talking. With Three Mile Island and Chernobyl securing their place in history, The China Syndrome does the same in more that no one expected. It’s an exceptional film from a truly talented team.