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I normally don't comment on movies on IMDB, but in this case I feel like I
should. I love movies, and I want to make them, and this movie is a
example of fine filmmaking.
This is one of the few movies that I have seen on the small screen (originally seeing it air on AMC, I believe, and then on the DVD I just watched) that made me get that feeling in the pit of my stomach. That little gnawing sensation that the director would hope you feel while watching his thriller.
Jack Lemmon's performance is a fine one, and Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas follow. I felt so much empathy of Lemmon, who's character Jack Godell, only wanted people to listen to his warning.
But what impresses me most about this film is the lack of a score, and this is also what makes it beautiful to me. Apart from the opening titles there are no background music to increase the tension, because none is needed. And while the credits run, white on black, in silence it drives the point home.
I use the movie as an example to anyone who says music makes the movie. I think the movie should make the movie and the music should only amplify that. But for The China Syndrome music is not necessary to get across the realism and the urgency depicted here. The characters portray all of this far better than the music ever could.
I highly recommend this movie, it is one of my favorites. If you like movies, you won't be disappointed. If you like movie soundtracks more, you might not want to give this one a go.
Made in the same year as the Three Mile Island incident, "The China
Syndrome" posits a core meltdown in a Californian nuclear plant. What if
contractors, driven by profit, omit to x-ray all the welded joints in a
power station's water pumps? What if contaminated water leaches into the
environment? What if faulty instruments indicate that reactor rods are
being cooled, when in fact they are exposed, and generating uncontainable
The film is also a dissertation on the power of the media to shape our awareness. In the opening sequence we see images of Kimberly Wells, the Channel 3 news presenter, but we hear the disembodied voices of directors controlling the newscast. Powerful, unseen people decide what we can see. There are also mishearings and broken links - TV is an imperfect medium and the wrong information can easily be conveyed. "Hey! Hey! Is anybody listening to me?" asks Kimberly. It is a metaphor for the whole film.
Kimberly and a freelance cameraman, Richard Adams, drive out to the Ventana power plant to shoot some routine feature footage. During their visit, an earth tremor causes a 'scram', an emergency alert in the plant's control room. Flouting regulations, Adams surreptitiously films the panic.
Kimberly and Richard (Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas) make a harmonious team. As they head along the freeway to the accompaniment of the opening music we see them sharing a soft drink, nodding in agreement and mirroring each other's hand gestures. Later, when events force them in divergent directions, the issues will seem clearer for us because we have seen the team co-operating closely.
For the first three-quarters of this film, I was rejoicing that for once a Hollywood project was dealing with a real issue rather than relying on guns and police cars. "The China Syndrome" shows that social and political conflict can be gripping on the big screen, even more gripping than the action genre. Imagine my disappointment, then, when in the final stretch the movie lost its nerve and turned to guns and police cars. For all that, the thing was worth doing. Michael Douglas, an actor-producer in the tradition of his father, had the courage to make a feature film about the seemingly unpromising subject of the hazards of nuclear energy. he is to be commended for that.
Jack Lemon is wonderful as Jack Godell, the middle-manager with a conscience. He is introduced into the story during the earth tremor, and he alone notices the secondary shudder which spells potential disaster. We see in his thoughtful, careworn face a gradual realisation that something is terribly wrong. It is this growing awareness, and Godell's honest desire to do something about it, which provide the engine of the plot. Godell is torn between his innate sense of fairness and a sincere loyalty to his industry. "I love that plant," he says, and he means it. During the tremor crisis, the camera's focus is thrown from Kimberly and Richard in the observation gallery to Godell on the control room floor. It is he, not the media, who will be the battleground on which this conflict will be fought.
The secondary strand of the plot concerns Kimberly's place in the TV news industry. Don Jacovich, the channel boss, wants to steer her away from hard news and restrict her to anodyne stories about animals and children. "You're better off doing the softer stuff," he tells her. She was hired for her looks, not for her analytical powers. When she raises the subject of the clandestine filming of the 'scram', she is told not to worry her pretty little head about it. "She is a performer," says Jacovich (Peter Donat), strongly implying that thinking forms no part of her duties.
When Kimberly tries to follow up the Ventana story, her very celebrity gets in the way. Autograph hunters in the local bar make it impossible for her to interview Godell properly. At the end, her dual role as a participant in, and reporter of, events culminates in an emotional broadcast during which she concedes, "I'm sorry - I'm not very objective."
When a news station acquires 'hot' footage, should it screen the material, regardless of consequences, on the basis of public interest? Richard provokes this debate by letting his camera roll inside the plant. Jacovich is worried about broadcasting an unconfirmed story because to do so is irresponsible use of media power, not to mention the lawsuits it would attract. Richard sees this as cowardice.
Weaknesses in the film centre on the credibility of the story. When Hector needs rescuing, Richard ousts the medics and takes personal control, even though he is only a cameraman. Kimberly and Richard nurse the stricken Godell while everyone else ignores him - even though he has just made international headlines.
However, the film contains plenty that is excellent. In a morality tale about the artifice of TV, we are shown how even the anchor man's adlibs are read from the autocue. Fittingly, TV literally moves into the plant's control room for the climax of the story. The phrase 'no accident' keeps recurring, with semantic syncopations. The SWAT team is careful to avoid the cameras, a nice touch which suggests that the police's work is somehow dirty. In a memorable shot McCormack, the flint-hearted chairman of the board, looks down on the seemingly tiny Kimberly and Godell, the representatives of the little guy. As the plant emergency grows complicated, the TV director cuts to a commercial for microwave ovens - frivolous radiation jarring ironically with the deadly stuff. Kimberly's slip of the tongue, "selfish sufficiency" for "self-sufficiency" is a clever comment on the attitude of the power company. The tense climax of the 'scram' is made more excruciating by being entirely wordless. In an awful moment, we get to learn what the 'China Syndrome' actually is. This is powerful cinema.
As someone who lives a sneeze away from TMI, I can tell you how this movie
was received in my area...people were terrified.
The administrators at TMI were hardly forthcoming about the situation. Some of the advice we got now seems laughable; I was in HS at the time, and for our protection, the teachers closed all the windows...wow. My one social studies teacher went to see the movie, and when they got to the part about the meltdown destroying an area the size of PA, he said that people started screaming.
So this movie is pretty surreal for me; it seems that it was only dumb luck that kept the plant from a meltdown. Every now and then I drive past it, and it still seems as sinister as it did then. Watching "The China Syndrome" seemed like watching the local news.
"The China Syndrome" is perhaps the first horror film that is not
necessarily following the rules of the genre. It takes place in the
contemporary '70's, and features people in the normal profession of
broadcast television news. But, when a news story about the leakage of
nuclear energy breaks; let's just say - there is your monster.
Jane Fonda is absolutely superb as Kimberley Wells, an ambitious Los Angeles reporter relegated only to fluff pieces by her sexist boss (Peter Donat). She wants something juicier, and gets it, in the form of an accident at a nuclear power plant facilitated by Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon with expressions too numerous to count). Her hippie radical cameraman (Michael Douglas, who also produced) photographs the incident without the plant's knowledge and they both agree that public safety is a valid story. The network brass doesn't think so, and soon both Fonda and Douglas are entangled in a web of legalities concerning the tape.
The crux of the film is Lemmon's character. A man torn between loyalty to his company and telling the truth - even in the face of grave consequences. What makes this horror scenario so compelling is that these are true flesh-and-blood people stuck in the most extraordinary of circumstances faced with both a threat of cosmic proportions as well as a human one.
This is a remarkably chilling thriller, and I'm disappointed that it's not taken more seriously (as both art and tract).
This is *not* a great film about nuclear power. It plays too fast and
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
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
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. . .
Centrally focused on the nuclear power industry, James Bridges's film
contains a subtext indicting the news media, particularly television. His
story leaves no room to doubt that there is a nexus between the moguls of
the two industries which influences the way stories are, first, treated and,
He may exaggerate to make his point, but he makes it so prominent that its place cannot be overlooked in examining the whole of the film.
Bridges also knows Hitchcock's trick of frustrating the audience with the passage of time. When Kimberly's crew is waiting at a public hearing for Jack to arrive with evidence, the performance of the enviro-protesters with their neat clothes, neat black gags and silent protest is as excruciating as nails scraping a blackboard. The audience is more anxious than the characters for an arrival to put an end to it.
Intelligent, nail-biting drama came out of nowhere in 1979 and soon was on the cover of every newspaper in America (when life imitated the film). A nuclear power plant employee in Southern California is threatened by superiors when he decides to go public with the real story behind an accident at the plant. Ostensibly a stuck valve problem, a piece of film secretly recorded by a TV news-crew shows that it was an accident verging on disastrous proportions--and worse, that safety conditions are being scrubbed to save millions of dollars, a cover-up that endangers everyone's lives. The movie occasionally gets too technical (especially in the second-half) and could use more human interplay, however the performances by Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda (as a puff-piece newswoman in the right place at the right time) and Michael Douglas (as a freelance cameraman) are superb. The throwaway bits involving nuclear protesters is both entirely accurate and bitterly satirical, and the news-biz (with its corporate structure and vapid yes-men) is vividly captured. ***1/2 from ****
The first thing you see in this film is a static angle(one which will be repeated later in the film), depicting the chaos going on(unseen to the audience) in a studio that airs news. Soon after, Fonda's character's typical story is shown, in that same angle. Don't let this mislead you; the film is not about a female reporter, a woman struggling to succeed in a male-dominated profession. That is merely a lead-in, a way of starting the film(though it's used later). The actual point to this production is revealed gradually, and the first we see of it is in a deliberately long scene early on. The entire film has that pace; not slow or drawn-out, but deliberate. It's never really fast, even in the few sequences that one would normally expect to be so. This pacing(especially because it seems to slow down further as the plot is revealed, as the disturbing, unsettling nature of the film is unraveled) is strong, almost painful to the viewer. It inspires you to, if it had been possible, jump into the screen, grab the people responsible by the collar and yell at them to *do* something about it, to remedy the situation. Never once did I feel like getting up or even taking my eyes off the screen for a moment. The subject is extremely important to be aware of, and it's handled perfectly here. No over-dramatization(well... very little, anyway), just an accurate presentation of the issue. The direction is astounding. The empathy felt for Lemmon's character is profound. The editing is masterful... one scene near the very end illustrates that perfectly. The editor, judging from his filmography, is vastly underrated. The writing was excellent. The acting was great, in particular by Lemmon, Fonda and Douglas(who also produced it). The lack of a score is perfect; no music is needed to enhance. The ending is sublime and effective. The movie does have a few negative points... among them, some of the dialog is obviously and undeniably mainly exposition, one particular part of the film, whilst dramatic, doesn't seem to mesh with something that follows it. Not everyone will watch the film because of two features of it which are commonly (and rightfully so) attributed to bad movies; the pacing(which can be mistaken as being slow) and the (lack of) score. One could argue that to be a negative thing, as everyone ought to consider the points it presents, but maybe it's better this way; handling the heavy subject with the intelligence and respect(for the topic as well as the viewer)... something like this, maybe it shouldn't be spoon-fed. I was mesmerized with the film, and left very taken aback. I recommend this to anyone who believe themselves strong enough to handle it. 9/10
When THE CHINA SYNDROME was released, plenty of right-wing critics and
pro-nuke supporters blasted this film, particularly since its three leading
stars were all known for their liberal politics and their overt distrust of
nuclear power. But it only took two weeks and a near-catastrophic accident
at Three Mile Island to shut those critics up.
Fonda and Douglas are the L.A. news crew that witness a potentially nasty accident at the Ventana nuclear power plant. Douglas films the event through the plant's soundproof glass; but the TV station will not air the footage, fearing a massive lawsuit. It is thus up to Fonda and Douglas to get at the truth, despite a massive attempt by the plant's owners to cover up the accident.
But a conscientious shift supervisor (Jack Lemmon) has uncovered certain defects in the plant's pump support structure. He believes that these defects were the cause of the accident and that, though it would be extremely costly and lengthy, if repairs aren't made, the next accident could be apocalyptic. But he can't get anyone who works with him to believe his story. The result is a nightmarish climax that pulls various political, technological, and human interest stories together in one disturbing package.
While obviously quite politically liberal in nature, THE CHINA SYNDROME, well directed and co-written by James Bridges (THE PAPER CHASE), is also fundamentally a message movie about the inherent dangers of putting technology and nuclear power together. Fundamentally, nuclear power can NEVER be made safe because people can NEVER be perfect. That is what the film is saying; and in a highly entertaining and suspenseful way, it says it brilliantly.
AS poor and as distorted as the news in the U.S. is today, I find it
refreshing that there were cover-ups and 'arrangements' being made over
nuclear plants even in the 70's. Having worked on the software for control
systems that theoretically control the nuclear plants, I know that any day
now, the 'holes in the Swiss cheese slices' will all line up, and boom!!!!
No one is taking the time to provide the care in that software that is
continually being 'improved' and building like a house of cards. Safety
software engineers are paid NOT to care about the quality of the work, but
to rubber stamp the specs.
The inspectors they showed there are today even more incompetent and apathetic. As long as they find a few cosmetic problems to bitch about (e.g., coffee cups hiding alarm buttons), they don't peer any further. And of course, they wouldn't examine the X-rays, or know what they were looking for, if they did. The fox is guarding the henhouse in many areas in which we foolishly think we are protected. This movie attempts to unveil that danger, something movies are no longer allowed to do, since they are made by the same Big Business conglomerates that give you the nuclear plants, the Keystone tires, the Ford roll-overs.
Jane Fonda does a fantastic job of playing the innocent ingenue, something that hard-brained tough lady isn't in real life. And of course, Jack Lennon, dear departed, did one fantastic job as the ill-fated conscience of the nuclear plant. Check this one out of the video store....before all the copies are ordered destroyed. (I'm kidding, but not by much.)
Collusion between the information distorters and dispensers AND Big Business is just one of the themes in this movie, but something that's much more prevalent now than then. Well-written, I want to now see, "The Making of the China Syndrome" to find out what was cut out of it, and how much pressure the makers of this movie were under.
Just one thing: The movie Cher was in, in which she's run off the road, was also about a nuclear plant, and a worker who knows the truth about the apathy to safety at high levels of the plant. Which one copied the other?
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