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The China Syndrome (1979)

A reporter finds what appears to be a cover-up of safety hazards at a nuclear power plant.



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Nominated for 4 Oscars. Another 7 wins & 11 nominations. See more awards »


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Cast overview, first billed only:
Daniel Valdez ...
Stan Bohrman ...
Pete Martin
Michael Alaimo ...
Donald Hotton ...
Khalilah Ali ...
Paul Larson ...
D.B. Royce


While doing a series of reports on alternative energy sources, an opportunistic reporter Kimberly Wells witnesses an accident at a nuclear power plant. Wells is determined to publicise the incident but soon finds herself entangled in a sinister conspiracy to keep the full impact of the incident a secret. Written by Dave Jenkins <david.jenkins@smallworld.co.uk>

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


Today, only a handful of people know what it means... Soon you will know. See more »


Drama | Thriller


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Release Date:

16 March 1979 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

An Element Of Risk  »


Box Office

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Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
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Did You Know?


Screenwriter Mike Gray's early background as an engineer and technical writer gave the scenes in the power plant the kind of drama that defies fictionalizing. During initial development, producer Michael Douglas brought in another writer, T.S. Cook, for script polishing, attracted the attention of the Columbia Pictures studio, and secured a commitment from actor Jack Lemmon for a crucial role. Lemmon recalled: "That script had a kind of maverick quality. I was hooked". See more »


When Jack Godell scrutinizes the trace which illustrates the vibration he is so concerned about, the close-up of the trace shows a barely wavering line with one incident of more violent activity. In the longer shot, showing Godell holding the trace, the line fluctuates to a far greater extent over its entire length. See more »


Ted Spindler: He was not a loony. He was the sanest man I ever knew in my life.
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Crazy Credits

The end credits run in total silence. See more »


Featured in The Tonight Show with Jay Leno: Episode #19.47 (2010) See more »


Somewhere In Between
by Stephen Bishop
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User Reviews

Still Relevant After (Nearly) 25 Years

This is *not* a great film about nuclear power. It plays too fast and loose with reality for that--especially in a cringe-inducing scene where two scientists describe the consequences of a reactor accident. The catastrophic damage they describe is (even opponents of nuclear power would agree) a worst-case scenario, not the inevitable result of a breakdown in the reactor cooling system. Three-Mile Island suffered such a breakdown, and the surrounding "area the size of Pennsylvania" remained habitable.

That said, this *is* a great (and surprisingly subtle) film about complex technological systems, how they fail, and how the organizations that manage them go awry. Subtle? Well: 1) Jack Godell, the whiste-blowing hero, is a flawed and self-doubting normal human being rather than a crusader in shining armor; 2) His co-workers at the plant (as opposed to the "suits" they work for) are sympathetic working-class guys who gripe (as does everybody now and then) about burdensome government regulations and the clueless public; 3) The flaws in the plant are subtle, not glaring. The film, in other words, plays a lot fairer than you'd expect given its reputation (and pedigree).

Does this film have a definite whiff of late-70s, post-Watergate America about it? Sure. Does it have a political edge? Yes. For all that, though, it's still (sadly) relevant--our technology, and the people who are supposed to make it work, still fail us. See the movie, then skim the recent (August 2003) report on the Columbia disaster; the more things change. . .

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