The China Syndrome (1979)

Article 2915 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 5-1-2009
Posting Date: 8-6-2009
Directed by James Bridges
Featuring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas
Country: USA

A potentially disastrous accident takes place at a nuclear power plant while a TV reporter and cameraman are present. The cameraman manages to surreptitiously film footage of the control room during the crisis. When the reporter and the cameraman find their scoop stifled, they go out on their own to seek the truth. Meanwhile, the plant supervisor on shift during the crisis becomes suspicious when the investigation of the crisis is rushed, and uncovers evidence that means the plant is still dangerous.

I saw this one in theaters when it first came out, and I thought it made for a great thriller, though I was less taken with it as a political statement. Having watched it again, I still feel the same way. Granted, I’m always suspicious of movies that are political statements; after all, you can argue any point when your writers have the ability to stack the deck and place the good guys and bad guys where they want. Often, the elements that add to the thriller aspects will take away from the sense that you’re seeing a real-life scenario, the only really valid context for a political statement.

Still, the movie does make a dandy thriller. The movie generally follows the events from two directions. The first (involving the investigative reporting of the cameraman and the female reporter) are standard, though well done. The second is what really makes the movie; Jack Lemmon’s performance as the plant supervisor is one of his greatest performances, and it is his conflicts that really drive the drama forward. He’s torn between his loyalty to the company (which comes out when he has to deal with outsiders) and his knowledge that something is wrong that needs to be addressed, but is being swept under the carpet. He rightly got an Academy Award nomination for his work here, as did Jane Fonda for her role as the reporter. The movie was aided tremendously at the box office by its timeliness, only a few days after its release, a disaster occurred at a power plant on Three Mile Island. Incidentally, a musical score was written for the film, but was scrapped when the director and producers didn’t like it; as a result, this one of those rare movies that has no music over the closing credit crawl, which actually adds to the overall tension.

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