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  China Syndrome, The Going Nuclear
Year: 1979
Director: James Bridges
Stars: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas, Scott Brady, James Hampton, Peter Donat, Wilford Brimley, Richard Herd, Daniel Valdez, Stan Bohrman, James Karen, Michael Alaimo, Donald Hotton, Khalilah 'Belinda' Ali, Paul Larson, Nick Pellegrino
Genre: Drama, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 1 vote)
Review: Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) is a television news reporter on a Californian station, and typically gets given the frivolous stories to cover, singing telegrams, the local aquariums, that sort of thing. She would prefer to be taken seriously, but is growing more resigned to the fact that isn't going to happen with the material she has, so when she is assigned to do a puff piece on the nearby nuclear power plant, she is not enthused, but carries on like it was any other job. With cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) in tow, plus the soundman, they are guided through the plant, dutifully asking the right questions until overlooking the control room from the gallery, there's a tremor...

It sounds an odd thing to say considering the real-life implications, but The China Syndrome could not have been released at a better time. Before it was put out in the United States, the nuclear authorities were complaining loudly that it was a complete fabrication, and their safety protocols were among the finest in the world, so there was no chance any sort of accident was possible with those strict safeguards in place. Then, twelve days into its release schedule, Three Mile Island happened, a dreadful failure of a power plant that almost caused the deaths of everyone in its vicinity and it was down to sheer luck that a mass disaster was averted. People then took notice.

In those opening stages where the reporters are wondering what is going on with the plant, so are we: the screenplay by Mike Gray, T.S. Cook and director James Bridges packs the controller's dialogue with jargon that is deliberately confusing to the layman, which is most of us, no matter how accurate it was. Fortunately, they had Jack Lemmon to play that controller, and when he was looking worried in his movies you knew there was something very serious going on, so while the disaster is averted while Adams captures it secretly on his camera, we can guess there will be no guarantee it won't happen again and result in far more dire in circumstances the next time.

Douglas was a producer on The China Syndrome, as he had been on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the success of four years before, but this picture was a trickier proposition, straddling two of the defining genres of the seventies in Hollywood: the disaster movie and the conspiracy movie. While this was not based on any incident as far as the plot details went, it had been inspired by a genuine and not too well publicised accident at an Alabama power plant in 1975, which rendered the film's authenticity all the more valued. Again, Lemmon was given an abundance of technical dialogue, and - quite a difficult thing to pull off - he made it sound as imperative and urgent as if his character Jack Odell was yelling "Run for your lives!" at the top of his voice over and over; it was one of his finest dramatic performances.

But Fonda was just as good, and there was a link between the Odell and Wells characters, since they are neither of them taken as seriously as they need to be. We need Odell to be able to tell the truth, and we need Kimberly to be able to broadcast it, but sexism in her case sees her subtly belittled at every turn. It may have been the type of role Fonda was most comfortable with, but she essayed it with great skill (despite the production having to edit around her after she broke her ankle while filming - you'd never know unless someone told you), and as the only important female character to emphasise her struggle in a man's world, again a favourite theme of the seventies, she makes everything in her delivery count. Yes, it does grow a shade melodramatic in its last act, and you kind of wish Kimberly had landed the sucker punch rather than Wilford Brimley, who nevertheless is excellent in his first major movie role as a "company man", but as a parable for the abuse of power, even the neglect of power, and the diabolical consequences that can lead to, The China Syndrome remained a justified hit.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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