The China Syndrome (1979)


A review of the 1979 drama The China Syndrome about the threat of a meltdown at a nuclear power plant starring Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas

China Syndrome Jack Lemmon Jane Fonda Michael Douglas

The Ventana nuclear power plant is getting a visit from a local news crew. Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) is taking a break from doing fluff pieces and wants to do a report on the hot button issue that all Americans are concerned with – nuclear power.

Wells, her hotheaded cameraman Richard (Michael Douglas) and soundman Hector are present when the plant goes through an emergency shutdown. Shift supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) notices an unusual vibration. Suddenly workers are scrambling, alarms are going off and Godell is panicked. Things get back under control, but unbeknowst to anyone Richard had been filming the event the whole time.

What follows is Kimberly and Richard trying to get to the bottom of what exactly happened and Godell discovering the plant isn’t as safe as he once believed. With a new plant on schedule to open within a few weeks those in charge don’t want to jeopardize the billions the company will be earning and are ready to silence the reporters and the whistleblower at whatever costs.

The China Syndrome has become synonymous with the debate of nuclear energy and in particular the Three Mile Island nuclear accident that occurred twelve days after its release. But leaving aside the topical issue the movie delves into and what it wants to say about it, it’s a very effective thriller.

Director James Bridges presents the film in a docu-drama style to create an air or reality. There’s no musical score, no big showy performances. The cast really grounds things. Both Douglas and Fonda are good. Douglas is the paranoid skeptic that doesn’t trust anything he’s told. Fonda is the reporter who wants to do more important assignments, but is apprehensive to jeopardize her cushy spot at the station.

Lemmon is the one who really shines out of the entire cast. He is excellent. We see how much he loves his plant and is willing to defend it against Kimberly’s accusations of it being unsafe initially. Once he discovers that safety regulations were circumvented in order to save costs and to get it operating in a hurry he feels betrayed.

It’s almost like he’s just discovered his wife has been cheating on him!

The China Syndrome 1979 Jack LemmonHe’s angry, upset, you feel for the guy. At times I get more upset with how his bosses flippantly dismiss Lemmon’s concerns than the risk they’re putting the public at.

Although reluctant at first, he’s finally willing to spill the beans to make the ones responsible accountable. Lemmon has always been great and I think this is one of the best performances of his career.

At that point that’s when the film kicks into thriller territory with older rich powerful guys ordering their cronies to silence these troublemakers. They’ll do anything to prevent any problems with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, making sure they cover up their tracks, clearing the road to getting their new plant open and worrying about their profits. You really start to hate these jerks and are pulling all the way for our heroes to get their story out.

The film is about television news as much as the nuclear issue. The film opens and ends on a television monitor with Fonda reporting on two dramatically different stories. Fonda is constantly trying to break free of fluff and do some ‘hard news’.

A consistent theme that runs through the film is entertainment over information and the importance of ratings. Fonda is expected to do stories about birthday parties for tigers at the zoo, wear her hair a specific way and as her boss says about her, “she’s a performer and she’ll do what she’s told”.

It’s a really good movie. It’s packed with great performances, riveting scenes, a suspenseful story and forces you to think of the nuclear question. The potential danger the movie describes has come close to happening numerous times and nuclear accidents we’ve had since its release make it all still feel relevant today.

The movie lays it out for you that no matter how good of intentions one has and all the fail safes installed there’s always the possibility of some outside uncontrollable force to put it all at risk. Or it could even come down to simple human error to set things on the road to catastrophe.


9 thoughts on “The China Syndrome (1979)

  1. I'm sorry.

    But I can't get past the fact that the owners of a nuclear power plant would hire hitman on the payroll. What do they need them for? Do they failed inspections so regularly that they need the cack somebody on a regular basis?

    And while we're on the subject, "Why does God want a starship?"

    1. The concept of nuclear plant owners hiring someone to off a whistleblower isn't improbable. Look at the real life case of Karen Silkwood, a nuclear plant technician who worked for Kerr-McGee who brought up safety violations at her plant and was died suspiciously in a car accident in 1974 while on her way to meet with a reporter from the New York Times. The documents that she had in her car were missing when she was discovered. This was also made into a very good movie called Silkwood with Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, Cher, Fred Ward and early film appearance by David Strathairn.

    2. I believe it…people will DO ANYTHING to protect their profits. Plus, it's a movie, and it certainly beneficial to it being a thriller. 🙂

    3. Adding to what Anonymous just said (SPOILER!)….what happened to the soundman Hector in this film was in fact directly inspired by Karen Silkwood's mysterious death.

    4. I can't believe what I am reading. You're going to defend your position that the nuclear industry offs their employees by pointing to a dippy melodrama starring Kurt Russell?

      As a matter of fact, I do know about Karen Silkwood and her unfortunate end. She was a whistleblower. But from what I remember about the case, she high on Ludes and Weed when she went off the road that night.

      Both sides spun her death. Kerr-Mcgee called her a drug fiend and a slut. Unionist said she was murdered to stop a threat to a corporation. Which do you think Hollywood was sympathetic too?

      I do know what murder by radioactive contamination looks like. Remember that guy Vladamir Putin office in England by putting Polonium in his tea?

      I bring that up because many have made a lot of noise about how she became contaminated. No one is really sure how. The Polonium case shows how stupid it is to murder someone that way. For the nuclear energy sector to contaminate a whistleblower complaining about the safety of the nuclear industry seems doubly stupid.

      Lastly, the thing that gets me about "The China Syndrome" is they are very clear here. These people that start to go after Lemmon and Fonda's film crew are supposed to be the personal "Security Team" of the reactor owners. That might have played better in the post-Watergate 70's. But now it seems rather a quint idea.

      If you want to see film about a corporation going after a whistle blower with a more realistic feel, I would recommend "The Insider" with Russell Crow and Al Pacino. There they use their power to destroy someone using lawyers instead of violence.

      I'll leave you with this thought: When it comes to Karen Silkwood, remember that the nuclear industry is very dangerous.

      Check this video out concerning just the people who mine the stuff:


  2. I've only seen this movie once but remember many scenes and considering that 'once' was about 30 years ago, that's impressive. I'll have to watch it again sometime. I do remember it being effectively thrilling at least to my 15 year old self.

  3. This is a very effective, taut, thriller but it fits into a sub-genre of Hollywood movies that came out during the Jimmy Carter years where the government and big business aren't just bad, corrupt or incompetent…they're downright malevolent. So you get movies such as Three Days of the Condor, Rollover, Coming Home, Network, The China Syndrome and Silkwood (at the tail end of this era) where anti-establishment protagonists aren't the hippies and youth of Sixties counter-culture movies, but more conventional liberals for truth and justice.

    The movies wear their Kennedy inspired credentials on their sleeve and they tap into the fears of movie audiences still shell shocked by Vietnam, race riots, energy crises, global terrorism, globalism, the pervasiveness of the media and the complicity between them, big business and the government, but not in a survivalist of "truther" way: They're way too sophisticated for that. "Thinking Man's Paranoia" is probably what they are and it helped if you had Jane Fonda or Sally Field in the cast as well.

    As Captain Nemo has stated, these companies and networks seem to have hit men on speed dial. The solution to pesky do-gooders is always to kill them. In the case of Silkwood, the fact that it's based on a true story, that the protagonist dies from the very thing she's trying to make the public aware of and the company tries to cover it up only adds fuel to this middle-class paranoia. On TV, Quincy would be the voice of outraged conscience and he'd bang on to City Hall or to the Department of Responsibility to get legislation changed but in the movies you have to ramp things up by introducing corporate hit men.

    I remember when The China Syndrome came out in the cinema it had the effect of making everyone terrified of nuclear power (they were already quite wary of it before the movie came out) so a calm, rational debate on its merits or foibles could never take place lest someone brought up The China Syndrome. But this is the movie that launched Michael Douglas' movie career after TV and it showed that although Jack Lemmon is an actor from a golden age of Hollywood, he could mix it up with the method acting crowd and shine in any era of movie making.

  4. I wrote a review on this movie marking the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, and this was shortly after I not only viewed the movie for the first time, but it was also right after Fukushima. Here's my review over at Ciao UK: they awarded me a diamond for the review and only 10 a month get selected for that honor, considering they get thousands of reviews every month. Hope you like it:

  5. Great Movie. All anyone need do is look at the recent nuclear catastrophe in Japan to see the relevance of this film today. Earthquake, tsunami then meltdown. And if you think it's over and you're not affected, I suggest getting a Geiger counter and take some readings of some pacific migrating fish – like tuna. My neighbor had one and we took readings from fish we got at the fish market. Yes, it did indeed register clear, higher-than-normal levels of radioactivity. Go ahead, try it yourselves. But, as Dr. Zaius said to Taylor: You may not like what you find.

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