The moment it was released, The China Syndrome was criticized by the U.S. Nuclear Power industry, who saw it as a direct attack. And there are certainly moments in the film that do this very thing; at this point in 1979, nuclear power was a frightening prospect for a lot of people, who worried what might happen to their communities in the event of an accident.
It didn’t help the industry’s case when, a few days after The China Syndrome hit theaters, the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in Pennsylvania suffered a partial meltdown, marking the most significant nuclear accident in U.S. history.
How’s that for free advertising? The China Syndrome went on to make millions at the box office.
While shooting a piece on alternative energy sources in California, reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) and her cameraman Richard (Michael Douglas) witness what appears to be a serious situation in the control room of the Ventana nuclear power plant. Though forbidden to take any shots, Richard keeps his camera rolling as the plant’s shift supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) and his team, which includes technician Ted Spindler (Wilford Brimley), avert a potential meltdown. Fearing backlash, Kimberly is prevented from using any of Richard’s footage by her station manager, Don Jacovich (Peter Donat).
Godell and his company’s top executive Evan McCormack (Richard Herd) put out a cover story, maintaining there was no real danger. But Godell, quite shaken by the incident, launches his own investigation. To his dismay, he finds that corners were cut during the plant’s construction. When his attempts to reveal the truth are met with doubt and even threats, Godell turns to Kimberly and asks that she help him get the word out before a genuine disaster strikes.
Approaching its story from two directions, The China Syndrome is enthralling as both an exposè of investigative journalism (a la All the President’s Men) and a thriller, in which a whistle-blower is harassed by his own organization. Each story works as intended thanks in large part to the performances. Jane Fonda is terrific as the on-air personality who longs to cover a real news story, while Jack Lemmon damn near steals the show as the company man who loses faith in his superiors, and wants to do the right thing. Lemmon would win several awards for his turn as Godell, including Best Actor at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, and was even nominated for an Oscar (which he lost to Dustin Hoffman for Kramer Vs. Kramer).
In addition to its cast, there are moments throughout the second half of The China Syndrome that will have you on the edge of your seat, like when Godell, while driving, realizes he’s being followed and tries to shake his pursuers by dodging in and out of traffic. Yet the film’s most intense sequence is saved for the end, when both subplots crash together in a way I never anticipated.
Seen today, its message is dated. Nuclear energy is a reality, and has been accepted (for the most part) by a more informed public. Yet, even if time has passed its storyline by, The China Syndrome remains a taut, gripping thriller all the same.
Rating: 8 out of 10