Thursday 26 January 2023

The China Syndrome (1979)


Off-List: The China Syndrome

The first off-List movie for 1979 is “The China Syndrome”. I picked this one because I thought I remembered watching it years ago. Turns out that was a different movie, and I only knew of this movie by reputation. So, yes, a movie with a large reputation and a first view for me.

Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) is a news reporter on a Los Angeles TV station, doing puff pieces on singing birthday cards and zoo events. One such assignment is on the Ventana nuclear power plant where the local manager explains about nuclear energy. While filming there is a tremor, and they witness what looks like a near fatal accident. Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon), the floor manager looks very distressed by the event and unknown to the plant manager the cameraman, Richard (Michael Douglas), has filmed the event.

Kimberly’s managers do not want to use the material so a very upset Richard steals the tape and shows it to a nuclear energy expert who is testifying in a public hearing on another of the power company’s plants. Meanwhile, Jack Godell, while trusting that the system and the failsafes work, is worrying about something not sounding right during the event and starts looking into the structural details. When he finds that the welding inspections are faked he gets really worried and soon Kimberly, Michael and Jack are up against some very powerful interests.

“The China Syndrome’s” claim to fame is that it was released just 12 days before the accident on the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, making it a warning against the dangers of nuclear energy. This is of course a coincident and maybe a bit unfair because as I see it, it is more about the public against big money who in the interest of their business take incredible risks with health and safety, kills, steals and lies. The public’s watchdog is supposed to be the media, but media itself may be compromised. So, basically, this is a conspiracy story where threat of a nuclear accident simply demonstrates the high stakes of the game.

If we are to focus on the nuclear accident aspect, I think the Chernobyl case is probably a better parallel. There it was personal ambition and political interest (the communist equivalent of big business) that set aside public safety and caused a major accident. If the threat of a nuclear accident really was the main theme of this movie, it would and should have gone much further down that road.

It is obvious that Kimberly, Richard and Jack represent honesty and public interest, the need to do the right thing and therefore they have our sympathy. It is equally clear that they have no idea what they are up against and only in the final minutes realize how small potatoes they really are. That realization is probably more chilling in this movie than the threat of a nuclear accident and I think “The China Syndrome” is one of the better conspiracy movies at that.

The cast speaks for itself. Fonda is always good and it was fun watching a young (and rebellious) Michael Douglas, but it is Jack Lemmon that steals the picture. His portrait of a troubled engineer, challenged on his integrity is phenomenal, though career best would maybe be a step too far in such a glorious career. Both Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon were nominated for Academy Awards and Lemmon won it in Cannes.

I quickly overcame my disappointment that this was not the movie I expected it to be and enjoyed what I got instead. This is a well composed movie and not as stereotype as conspiracy movies tend to be. And of course, points of pointing out that some things are just too dangerous to play games with. Recommended.



  1. I had a similar experience with this film, in that it wasn't what I expected. Then again, I saw this in the theater as an 11-year-old.

    I suppose it was inevitable that I became a movie nerd. What kid asks to see this in the theater?

    1. At that age I went on my own to the cinema on my own to watch Ghostbusters. And left half way through because it got too scary. I am quite certain I would not have been tempted to watch The China Syndrome.

  2. I saw this on original release in the theater about a week prior to the Three Mile Island melt-down. One of those movies that has a particularly vivid place in my mind.

    1. I can imagine. That was a case of uncanny timing. There are not many cases of that in movie history.