Thursday, July 4, 2019

The China Syndrome—More Than a Conspiracy Thriller

Jane Fonda as Kimberly.
Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), an ambitious reporter for an L.A. television station, wants to be a serious journalist. Instead, her condescending boss has given her “puff pieces”—stories about singing telegrams and tiger birthday parties at the zoo. Another routine assignment, a documentary about the nearby Ventana Nuclear Power Plant, is at least a little more promising.

However, when Kimberly and her crew tour the plant, they observe an “event” that throws the control room personnel into a brief panic. California Gas and Electric, which owns the plant, explains away the incident as a “routine turbine trip.” Kimberly and her photographer-friend Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) are convinced they witnessed a radiation leak—which Richard secretly filmed. To their dismay, the TV station manager quashes the story on legal grounds.

Jack Lemmon as Godell.
An angry Richard steals the film, while Kimberly has an encounter with Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon), one of the plant’s supervisors. Initially, Godell adamantly insists the incident was a routine one. However, the more he thinks about it, the more he becomes convinced that the plant may be in danger of a meltdown.

Made in 1979, The China Syndrome is a film that works as a “no nukes” statement, an examination of journalism ethics, and a conspiracy thriller. Not surprisingly, it was poorly received by nuclear power plant companies that felt it promoted the likelihood of a real-like nuclear incident. In actuality, The China Syndrome plays it fair by explaining all the protocols in place to prevent such catastrophes. The irony, though, is that the Three Mile Island incident occurred just months after the film’s release. As a result, the movie and the real-life accident are now forever linked and no doubt negatively impacted the growth of nuclear power stations in the U.S.

Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas.
From a journalism perspective, the key issue is the public’s right to know. When Kimberly and Richard push to broadcast a story about the first incident, we see the energy company’s PR head talking with the TV station’s manager. The implication is that the company wants to kill the story. However, the station manager’s rationale is that federal law prohibits filming inside a nuclear facility. That’s a pretty good reason given the possible lawsuits and potential for criminal charges against the station and its personnel. However, from an ethical perspective, it’s a complex issue because the public surely has a right to know if it’s in danger. The station manager’s best course of action would have been to have an expert view the Richard proposes and does.

Finally, The China Syndrome turns into a conspiracy thriller during its third act. Faced with losing almost $500,000 a day, the energy company takes extreme measures to prevent Godell from exposing a cover-up during an investigation of the first accident. There are wild car chases and an intense climax in which a key character struggles to explain the truth before being silenced.

Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon bring earnestness and urgency to their performances. It’s apparent that Kimberly and Godell make a connection when they first meet in a bar. As we learn more about them, we discover that both are lonely people whose lives revolve around their professions. Both actors were nominated for Academy Awards and earned top acting honors from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

Michael Douglas produced The China Syndrome as a follow-up to his Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Richard Dreyfus was originally cast as Jane Fonda’s cameraman colleague. When he had to withdraw from the production, Douglas assumed the role.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't realize Richard Dreyfus was the original choice for Richard. That would have been a good performance – not that Michael Douglas wasn't.