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The Worst Case Scenario
bkoganbing14 January 2008
It was harrowingly close, but The China Syndrome received the worst kind of publicity when as it was going into theatrical release, the accident at Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant happened. I still remember the whole country's attention was glued onto hourly bulletins coming out of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. And wouldn't you know it, a scientist in The China Syndrome describes the worst case scenario as rendering an area as large as the state of Pennsylvania uninhabitable.

Less than a decade later in the Ukraine at Chernobyl, the Soviet Union in its last days dealt with such a crisis that didn't get righted in the nick of time. The China Syndrome once again became a relevant movie.

The film is more about cutting corners for safety than it is about being anti-nuclear. Jack Lemmon is a man who lived with nuclear power all his life as the captain of an atomic power submarine. What angers him and sets him off to create the confrontation that climaxes the film is the stupidity and greed of the power company managers. Stupidity and greed though are commodities found every day. The problem with them is that there are places where it can be tolerated less in human society.

Lemmon shares star billing with a couple of famous Hollywood offspring, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas. Jane is a TV News reporter who is constantly being assigned to puff feature stories and just happens to be at a nuclear power plant when an accident occurs. The cover-up by her own station and her later meeting with Lemmon set off the chain of events depicted in The China Syndrome.

Fonda's best scene I thought however was with Peter Donat a news executive with her station. Take a look at her facial expressions as Donat fluffs off the importance of the story and patronizingly tells her that her very beauty demands she stick to puff pieces. Fonda knows she's got something and sticks with it.

Michael Douglas plays her iconoclastic cameraman, this was a typical part for him back in the day. In his TCM tribute to his father Kirk Douglas, Michael said he opted for roles showing sensitivity. Still I could have seen a young Kirk Douglas in this part.

What to do about energy for industrial and post industrial nations, a vexing problem that will bedevil our government for a couple of generations to come. This film shows what can happen with a dependence on nuclear power. Our current problems geopolitically in the world stem in part from a dependence on fossil fuel, specifically oil. Everything we use brings consequence some unforeseen.

The real hero of the film in my opinion is Wilford Brimley, Lemmon's colleague at the nuclear power plant. In the end Brimley really steps up to the plate.

See The China Syndrome to know what I'm talking about.
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Realistic and compelling
Leofwine_draca23 March 2015
Warning: Spoilers
THE CHINA SYNDROME is another example of those great '70s-era conspiracy thrillers that still outdo most similar fare being released in cinemas today. It's a realistic, thought-provoking and sometimes terrifying tale of mankind's reliance on nuclear energy, and the problems that arise thanks to laziness and negligence on our parts.

Jane Fonda has never been better playing a TV reporter trying to get the scoop of her life, with a dependable Michael Douglas playing her tireless cameraman. Best of all, however, is Jack Lemmon in a straight role as a worker at a nuclear power plant who soon becomes aware that something very fishy is going on at his place of work. The cast is loaded with familiar faces, particularly at the news studio with James Karen and Peter Donat in support, and the great, underrated Wilfrid Brimley over at the plant.

THE CHINA SYNDROME quickly grips you at the outset with an outstanding set-piece, one that's full of tension. After this things change down a gear, and then it's a slow burn for a while. Towards the end though, they really pick up again with some chilling moments and a grand climax. It's a bit of an emotional roller-coaster ride and what makes it so effective is that it's easy to believe this could really happen. A great thriller, exemplary in fact.
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Great Jack Lemmon in compelling thriller
SnoopyStyle1 August 2014
Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) is a local L.A. TV reporter who does puff pieces. She and cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) are sent to do a simple report on the Ventawa Nuclear Power Plant run by California Gas and Electric. While filming in the control room, they witness a near meltdown. Manager Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) saves the day. Richard is able to film the accident but the report is shelved under pressure. The accident is covered up under an investigation. Jack does his own digging. The plant gets a clean bill of health and is started up again. He's still a true believer until he discovers some more things wrong. Meanwhile Richard has stolen the film and has shown it to some experts.

This is a great 70s disaster thriller except the big disaster doesn't actually happen. Jack Lemmon is terrific. Fonda and Douglas are fine as nosy media. Actually Fonda is not as aggressive as the stereotype would suggest. It's very much in Lemmon where the humanity lays. The pacing is actually quite compelling considering most of it is just investigations. It's also insanely timely coming out just before the Three Mile Island accident.
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The First Time I'd Heard of a Meltdown Was Three Mile Island
Hitchcoc24 December 2016
Because of this film, the crisis in Pennsylvania really came home. We have now had major incidents in Chernobyl and in Japan. Now we have a President elect that is about to play around with nuclear weapons and is in bed with the Russians. I know that is really political, but we have had elements of restraint and caution and have managed to survive for decades. I know nuclear weapons aren't power plants, but the result of mishandling either would silently kill tens of thousands of people. In this film we are presented with a very possible scenario. Because of negligence or general lack of concern, a potential meltdown is a possibility. This is about human error and we have no shortage of humans who are perfectly happy to allow others to face the consequences of their actions, especially when money is involved. Jack Lemmon is excellent. There is amazing tension all the way through. God help us if such a scenario ever plays out.
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"Where do you think the ax of human error is gonna fall?"
classicsoncall24 December 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Tough to stay objective and find balance with this film. The environmentalists on the left will point to it's 'credible' premise that anything can happen to compromise a nuclear plant's safety, while those evil right wing nutjobs will hold out for profit at any price. Why hell, they'll even kill for it, even with the cameras rolling to document every single move. I had to ask myself why a SWAT team would EVER arrive at a crisis location in a SWAT team vehicle. Is it that they need the publicity? I couldn't figure that one out.

For a picture that almost singlehandedly stopped an entire industry dead in it's tracks three decades ago, (with the help of Three Mile Island), this is almost the kind of fluff piece that Kimberly Wells (Fonda) started her career with. Could something like this actually happen? Well yes, if there weren't an inconceivable amount of safeguards and redundancies built into the systems to prevent their implosion. It's a lot like the argument being used to hogtie the Keystone Pipeline as I write this; something 'might' happen to cause a breakdown and an attendant oil spill. Never mind that there are six hundred twenty five thousand miles of oil pipe in this country already. Ever hear of a problem with one?

You know what really amazed me though? Remember when the rescue worker used the jaws of life on Hector's car and Richard (Douglas) pried the door open? There was a para-medic in the car already!!! How did that happen? I played that scene back a couple times, and the other side of the car was solidly positioned against the embankment. That guy was a magician.

Well if you leave your critical thinking cap at the door, this one serves up some tense moments in all the right places. Lemmon's character is an earnest guy who conveyed solid judgment throughout the picture, so seeing him come apart at the finale was a bit of a stretch. It was about that time I wondered what this picture would have been called if made by a Chinese film maker - would it be The American Syndrome?
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Why, we will (hopefully) never return to admiring nuclear power
lee_eisenberg8 May 2005
"The China Syndrome" could not have been released at a better time: twelve days after its release, the infamous screw-up in Three Mile Island happened. But even if that (and/or Chernobyl) had never happened, this movie remains an important look at what could happen through mismanagement of nuclear facilities. Jack Lemmon turns in a five star performance as the supervisor trying to expose a cover-up at his nuclear plant, with Jane Fonda playing the reporter trying to investigate, and Michael Douglas plays her cameraman.

I don't know whether or not the current threat of a terrorist attack makes "The China Syndrome" more disturbing, but either way, it's still definitely a movie that everyone should see.

I hope that those people who spent years pushing nuclear power saw this movie just so that they could know that their views and ideals are completely defunct.
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The China Syndrome
jboothmillard1 April 2009
Warning: Spoilers
The title sounded familiar, and the three lead stars were very appealing, and the critics give it a good rating, so I had to at least try it, and I'm glad I did. Basically TV reporter Kimberly Wells (BAFTA winning, and Oscar and Golden Globe nominated Jane Fonda), aspiring to do the hard hitting stories, and radical cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas, also producing) are at Ventana nuclear power plant outside LA doing a light report about energy production. While viewing the control room from the observation room, they witness shift supervisor Jack Godell (BAFTA winning, and Oscar and Golden Globe nominated Jack Lemmon) stopping an accident, and it was captured secretly on film. Kimberley and Richard are now trying to get the facts as to the incident that happened at the plant, hoping to make it as a real story to be broadcast on the news, but they have no permission to air unauthorised footage. Meanwhile, Godell is still concerned about the safety of the plant, and trying to keep a straight face in front of Kimberley. But it is obvious his worry is increasing, and he tells Kimberley the truth, and it is obvious people at the plant will do anything to make sure the truth doesn't get out, even if it means killing whoever could reveal it, including Godell. It all comes to head with Godell armed in the control room demanding an interview with Kimbeley, Richard filming, to tell the country the truth of the near accident, and even with him being shot, it is good to know that the conspiracy and another near accident is stopped. Also starring Scott Brady as Herman De Young, James Hampton as Bill Gibson, Peter Donat as Don Jacovich, Cocoon's Wilford Brimley as Ted Spindler, Richard Herd as Evan Mc Cormack, Daniel Valdez as Hector Salas and Stan Bohrman as Peter Martin. With fantastic performances by Fonda and Lemmon, Douglas made a good decision putting no music score in, it is a most gripping and thrilling "what if" political drama. It was nominated the Oscars for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, it was nominated the BAFTAs for Best Film and Best Screenplay, and it was nominated the Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture - Drama, Best Director for James Bridges and Best Screenplay. It was number 94 on 100 Years, 100 Thrills. Very good!
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The Pejoration Syndrome
rmax30482331 May 2002
When a word or expression undergoes degradation in its meaning and associations over time, linguists call it "pejoration." It's simply that some words become so contaminated by the semantic baggage they carry that they, as words, become "bad" in themselves. "Gung Ho" is an example from the military. In 1942 it was used with pride to describe an enthusiastic unit. It doesn't mean that today. Perhaps the most familiar everyday example is "undertaker." The word was a standard reference for the occupation until it became contaminated by covert associations. Boy, did it become contaminated. It was replaced by "mortician," which then underwent its own pejoration, so that today we have "funeral directors." (It won't be long.) Our culture has struggled with "housewife" ("domestic engineer") and "garbage man" ("sanitation engineer") and "atomic" ("nuclear"), which is why the Atomic Energy Commission turned into the Nuclear Regulatory Agency. (I thought I heard someone crying, "Why this tedious introduction!")

Nuclear energy is one of those issues that attracts grandstanders, something on the order of smoking or child pornography. Nobody is FOR it. Everyone is AGAINST it. The utilities want profits and labor wants jobs. If PG&E could find a cheap, risk-free way of turning a grain of sand into enough energy to keep Julia Roberts' wraparound smile dazzlingly alight for a thousand years, they'd jump at the chance. You want to make a successful movie that cashes in on existing prejudices and makes a bundle? Make one about nuclear energy and the non-existent sinister forces organized around its promotion. It's a cheap shot and it can't fail. (It's like satirizing the Miss America Pageant.)

Nuclear power seems to be relatively safe if properly researched and handled. (Even Isaac Asimov agreed.) When it's not, then you get Chernobyl or, if you're lucky, you get the Three Mile Island accident, which I have seen described in the media as a "catastrophe." What catastrophe? Despite human stupidity and technological failure, Three Mile Island had redundancy built into its safety mechanisms and they worked. (If there are sinister forces at work, it might have been the producers of this disaster movie engineering the Three Mile Island accident at the time of the movie's release. One of the characters even makes a remark that an accident at the Ventana plant could "contaminate an area the size of Pennsylvania." Wow!) I said that nuclear power "seems to be relatively safe" deliberately. It will take a long time and careful monitoring to know just how safe they actually are. And by "relative," I mean simply that nuclear power has the potential to destroy great numbers of lives when an accident happens, whereas we already KNOW that the burning of fossil fuels in the form of oil, coal, and gasoline are already doing that, and has been doing it since the industrial revolution began. (The Parthenon sizzles like a giant Alka Seltzer in all that acid raid.) Yet many of us prefer to go on dying from sources whose names don't have a "nuclear" appendage. What is it that "makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of?" I don't know. I'm just asking.

The movie is a piece of manipulative and propagandistic junk, and not very good junk at that. Michael Douglas is a good guy. You can tell because he's wearing a beard. The company and almost all its representatives are evil. They not only use shoddy workmanship but they try to cover the evidence of their deceit by murdering people. They try to cover up the close call at the plant, too. Then we have the easy-on-the-eyes Jane Fonda whose looks and manners are exploited by her employers, just like all women broadcasters do nothing but present stories on balloons that have gone astray or the weather or whatnot. (This movie was made before Connie Chung was paid a royal salary while she took time off from work in order to "try to become pregnant.") If you're going to have somebody insult and patronize Jane, Stan Bohrman is the man for the job. He's a real anchor in LA and comes on like a ton of bricks. When a serious story comes her way, though, Fonda grabs for it with gusto. Jack Lemmon comes around too. He recognizes the danger. Exactly what the danger is, isn't made too clear, aside from ominous references. A lot of tanks and pipes begin to clank and shiver and finally fall apart, with nothing important seeming to have resulted. What was that all about?

Unable to get a response from the utility company, and with Jane unable to get her employers to pay attention, Lemmon commandeers the plant's control room at gunpoint and demands a chance to tell the public. His wish is granted. But, presented with a microphone and camera, Lemmon turns to jelly. If he was previously bursting with the need to shout out the truth, he now becomes bafflingly circumlocutory. "Was there a cover up?" Jane urges him on live TV. "I -- it didn't -- I -- it wasn't natural -- there was just something UNNATURAL about the incident," he fumbles. This delay allows for a good deal of suspenseful cross-cutting between his gibbering nonsense and the SWAT team burning their way through the steel door. The SWAT team succeed while Lemmon doesn't. Even his friend, Wilford Brimley, who knows the truth, sounds evasive. "Jack never took a drink, so he couldn't have been drunk."

The movie is an insult to objectivity and to the native intelligence of the viewer, although it may tap into some of his or her deepest prejudices. Instead of "atomic" or "nuclear" power, how about "molecular" power? Or better yet, "clean" power? We can sprinkled it with arugula and claim it lowers your cholesterol.
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Crackerjack thriller!
moonspinner5529 January 2006
Intelligent 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 last sequence) 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 protester asides are both satirical and entirely accurate, and the news-biz (with its corporate structure and vapid yes-men) is well-realized. *** from ****
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an unhappy coincidence
blanche-21 March 2015
I saw "The China Syndrome" in the movie theater when it came out. By the time I saw it, Three Mile Island had already happened, and people were hyperaware of the dangers of nuclear power. Back then, it seemed it was always in the news, and this continued heavily into the mid-'80s. Despite accidents as late as 2014, we haven't had one in the U.S. in a long time, so it's not as prominent in the news. Now it seems to be fracking.

The China Syndrome concerns a nuclear accident that almost happened, and the attempts to trivialize it. Jane Fonda plays reporter Kimberly Wells, who does light news but is at the plant the day where there seems to be kind of disturbance in the plant room. Her cameraman, Richard Adams, played by Michael Douglas, surreptitiously films the goings-on. As one of the plant workers, played by Jack Lemmon, investigates, he realizes the problem goes deeper than initially believed.

The news station refuses to allow Kimberly to show the film and puts it in a safe, where it is stolen by Richard, who thinks everyone at the station, including Kimberly, is a wimp. Pretty soon, the nuclear people are anxious to get the news people to keep their mouths shut.

The China Syndrome is an excellent film all around, including the acting, directing by James Bridges, and the editing. Nuclear power still exists, there are still accidents, and this film remains still relevant.
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What's the worst that could happen? Well...
Coventry3 August 2021
Yours truly is active - professionally, that is - in the safety & prevention department of large multinational. Part of my job exists in investigating incidents, determining root causes and develop learnings. Why this piece of seemingly irrelevant and personal information? Well, solely to be able to say that "The China Syndrome" is extremely plausible, accurate and not at all dated; - despite being more than 40 years old.

In "The China Syndrome", a female reporter and her unorthodox cameraman are shooting a banal documentary inside a Californian nuclear plant when they suddenly witness (and secretly film) a panic situation inside the control room as a result of an incident. Whilst their TV-network is trying to prevent the footage from going viral, the senior supervisor at the plant discovers falsifications of crucial safety documents that are even worse than the incident that occurred.

The accuracy I was referring to is mainly about how incident investigations unfold, how the finding of one relatively small default often leads to the discovery of far bigger and more hazardous shortcomings, and - most of all - the eternal debate between safety regulations and budgetary restraints. Making an industry or an organization entirely safe & secure costs a lot of money, and it is money that doesn't bring any revenues.

Apart from all that, "The China Syndrome" is primarily a solid late 70s classic. Part disaster movie and part political/conspiracy thriller, the film is a typical product of the era. The subject matter is serious, but the film nevertheless contains numerous moments of sheer suspense and excitement. The performances are stellar, most notably from Jack Lemmon and Jane Fonda who were righteously nominated for an Oscar (but sadly lost out to respectively Dustin Hoffman and Sally Field).
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Three Underlying Threads
dougdoepke25 April 2016
No need to recap the plot, nor echo consensus points on the excellence of the production. Instead, I want to single out three topical threads that drive much of the drama and remain relevant in our own day.

One thread is the shaping of public consciousness by mainstream media. The conflict here is between a breaking crisis at a nuclear power plant and how that gets reported, if at all. Understandably, Godell (Lemmon) and allies feel that ordinary cautions about law-suits and bureaucratic procedures must be overridden in order to prevent the plant from starting up again and risking apocalypse. On other hand, Well's (Fonda) TV station must concern itself with risking major liability if Godell turns out to be a crank, which the power company is insisting upon. So where does the station's responsibility lie. In the movie there's little time to sort out these concerns, so the station's honchos must make snap decisions.

Another thread is the conflict between personal conscience and practical concerns. Godell is a central figure here, along with reporter Wells. Godell loves the plant and the services it provides. On other hand, he must wrestle with growing realization that the plant's safety features are fatally flawed. Thus he moves through stages of personal involvement until finally engaging whole-heartedly in exposing the dangers to a TV audience. Similarly, Wells moves through stages from cushy denial to putting her job and life on the line in support of Godell going on TV. But can Godell be so certain of his conclusion. There's no time to verify since the power company insists on starting up again.

And lastly is the question of power itself, both literally and figuratively. Power, considered literally amounts to electricity to run our many modern conveniences (the movie's microwave oven), generated here by the nuclear power plant. Shutting it down would also mean shutting down an entire community including the TV station. Figuratively, the leverage amounts to who ultimately wields power within the society itself. We see elements of this crucial question revealed by the basic conflict over whether the plant is shut down or not. To me, the contest here is between an element of the 70's counter-culture, the bearded Richard (Douglas), along with in-betweeners like Wells and Spindler (Brimley), and the suits concerned foremost with company investments, especially the planned new plant up the coast. Note how the imperious board-chairman (Herd) peers down from above into the control room where the action is. Note too how he commands an armed security attack force, a lethal arm of corporate power where the power really is. Thus, I can't help but see elements of 60's counter-culture helping to shape this 1978 production.

However, these echoes shouldn't be allowed to consign the perennial threads to a bygone time. Fashions may have changed, along with a new digital age that's loosened MSM's grip on public information. Still, these underlying threads, so powerfully dramatized in the film, remain among the underlying conflicts of our own age. For example, apocalyptic climate change is controversial, emerging as both an individual and collective issue. All in all, the movie amounts to a harrowing interweaving of such basic themes, thanks to a stellar cast, screenplay, and production crew. So don't miss it.
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bevo-136783 April 2020
I remember this was on the telly when I was a kid. Mum really liked it
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Bias Gets In The Way Of Drama
Theo Robertson7 January 2006
Many people have stated how much this film terrified them when they saw it at cinemas in the late 1970s and I do agree that this could have been one of the most realistic and chilling films of the 20th century where doomsday is concerned ...

... But...

The producers of the movie went and shot themselves in the foot by taking sides . Certainly you never feel you're being preached to while watching but the more you think about it afterwards the more you realise that the audience aren't being allowed to think for themselves

For example if a nuclear power plant comes close to a meltdown as shown here why would everyone with the exception of Jack Godell choose to ignore it ? Surely their lives and the lives of their family are on the line as well ? Surely they'd be worried more about their lives rather than their jobs ? Surely it wouldn't just be left to the lone noble crusader to take on the corporate giants ? And if you think Jack's is a little too quick to turn from loyal company man to anti nuclear eco warrior then I agree with you . That's because the subtext is unapologetically anti nuclear therefore the audience are expected to realise Jack has seen the light even if it feels unnatural from a dramatic point of view

In short Jack is something of a cliché as is the portrayal of the media with ambitious go getting TV journalist Kimberly Wells hot on the trail of an earth shattering story . Certainly casting Jane Fonda has helped because Fonda can act and Fonda knows how to fight her corner . Now imagine how laughably clichéd and one dimensional the role would have been if a pretty blonde bimbo actress had been cast instead ? Same with Michael Douglas cameraman Richard Adams . How many people watched the film thinking " Hey his dad's a famous movie star " or " I preferred him in that cop show with Karl Maldern " or " I can see why he ditched the beard " rather than " Would a cameraman really put his ass on the line for a point of principle ? "

Unfortunately this makes the movie appeal only to people who are vehemently and unapologetically anti nuclear which is a great pity because no matter what divide of the nuclear debate you are on I'm sure we all want answers to the same questions like what safeguards are there in a nuclear plant ? and is it a good idea building nuclear plants in regions that are bothered by earthquakes ? but with this movie no one will have their minds changed about anything
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Extremely effective storytelling.
Hey_Sweden28 May 2016
Warning: Spoilers
"The China Syndrome" truly is a landmark film. What helps the most in making it so successful is its "docu-drama" approach, giving it a sense of immediacy that you might not ordinarily get in a Hollywood production. For example, there is no music score on the soundtrack, manipulating us to feel a certain way at specific moments. The story (screenplay credited to Mike Gray, T.S. Cook, and director James Bridges) is compelling enough without additional accompaniment. Also, you also feel as if you're really learning something about the machinations of television news as well as the nuclear power industry. And the film turned out to be awfully prophetic: the real life notorious "Three Mile Island" incident occurred not long after.

A small time news station is doing a series of stories on nuclear power, and while they are present at the Ventana power plant, an accident takes place. The powers that be are convinced that nothing serious has happened, but the truth of the matter is far different. There are problems with the plant that only surface after loyal plant executive Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) is concerned enough to do his own sleuthing. Meanwhile, a TV reporter, Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), and a radical camera man, Richard Adams (Michael Douglas), realize that they're really on to something big.

Bridges does an expert job at reeling in his viewers, and holding their attention for approximately two hours without injecting his film with unnecessary stylistics. The material is downright fascinating, which helps since Bridges goes for a careful, measured pace. There is action, to be sure, as powerful people do everything they can - like running others off the road, and calling in SWAT teams - to ensure that nothing hurts their business. But at least the ending leaves you with a feeling of hope, that it won't be so easy anymore to cover things up.

The cast is impeccable right down the line: Fonda as the beauty who yearns to get out of fluff pieces and do more substantial news, Douglas as the pesky independent operator, and especially Lemmon. Lots of familiar faces supporting them, too: Scott Brady, James Hampton, Peter Donat, Richard Herd, James Karen, Donald Hotton, Lewis Arquette, Rita Taggart, et al. It's particularly nice to see Wilford Brimley, in his first substantial film role, as Godells' co- worker and friend.

Definitely catch this one. It's a real gem.

10 out of 10.
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No longer timely but still great filmmaking
preppy-315 August 2003
TV newscaster Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) and her radical camerman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) are at a nuclear power plant when a serious accident happens. The plants managers play it down but Adams has filmed it all. Wells and Adams try to get it on the air but the corporation that runs the plant prevents it. Plant executive Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) realizes there are serious problems and tests have been falsified. He tries to get executives to believe him--only they know it. Wells, Adams and Godell find all their lives are in danger.

I saw this in a movie theatre in 1979. I was only 17 and it scared me silly. To make matters worse the Three Mile Island accident happened around this time making the movie all that more real. Seeing it over 20 years later it doesn't scare me but it still is an excellent film--it works as a mystery, a gripping drama and an expose on the nuclear power industry. Fonda (with red hair) has one of her best roles as Wells--she perfectly conveys her character's growing suspicion and horror when she realizes a nuclear disaster could happen. Lemmon is (as always) excellent. He starts out believing in his company and the job and slowly starts to unravel when he starts finding things out. He was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award for this. Douglas is good but he has a small part and is completely overshadowed by Lemmon and Fonda.

A really great film--one of the best of the 70s. Don't miss this one!
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Three Mile Island…Chernobyl…Fukushima
LeonLouisRicci9 January 2014
This is a Monster Movie. The Monster is not Nuclear Energy or even the News Media, it is Unfettered Capitalism and by Default Deregulation Advocates. Mostly coming from the Very Top of the Capitalistic Scale, these Money Chasers are Immune to almost Anything. For Example, if a Disaster, like say Fukushima occurs, it is possible to believe that the Folks on the Top Floor are not going to stick around and Reap what They have Sown.

Most likely they will be on the Phone making a Money Transfer, in the Jet, and out of there in a Heartbeat and off to somewhere like Australia and protecting Themselves from the Devastation. But not so for the Regular Joes who are on the Ground trying to withstand the Radiation and Survive Unscathed. Good Luck with that.

This Movie is without Frills but has plenty of Chills. It is a Matter of Fact, Bare Bones Account of a possible Situation (Memo from the Board to Plant Employees: Never use the term Accident). It is a Gripping Film with Great Performances all around with Jack Lemmon taking the Oscar.

It all seems so Real even Viewing it Today. Do some Research on Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island and then take a peek at this 1979 Movie for Maximum Impact. It is Prescient in many ways and by the way, this Film was Produced and Released BEFORE Three Mile Island and of course the other two Disasters.
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Had an impact when it was released... and it hasn't lost it over the almost three decades that have passed
TBJCSKCNRRQTreviews10 February 2007
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
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Jane as a Red Head, Douglas with a Beard, and Lemmon as a Man Who's Off His Rocker
evanston_dad9 November 2007
"The China Syndrome" launched a whole string of films about the potentially devastating effects of misused nuclear power, a black cloud of paranoia that would hang over America for much of the Reagan years. It's a well-made and effective drama, given an extra punch by its high-power stars, notably Jack Lemmon who plays a senior official of the nuclear power plant who suffers a crisis of conscience. But one can't help but think that it was the serendipitous timing of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident that occurred just a couple of weeks after this film's release that has given it its lasting appeal as a classic from the 70s. As watchable as it is, it's certainly no classic.

With a red-headed Jane Fonda as a news reporter and a bearded Michael Douglas as her camera man (and the film's producer, by the way).

Grade: B+
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The Media May Help You, But They Are Not Your Friend
view_and_review20 November 2019
Warning: Spoilers
This movie is principally about an event that occurred at a fictitious California nuclear power plant (California Gas & Electric), the findings from that event, and what was done by the media, the power plant, and a shift supervisor.

*Disclaimer: I used to be a system operator at a power company so my opinion about certain events in this movie is not without bias.

The local T.V. news was at the Ventana Nuclear Power Plant doing a special on nuclear energy. During their tour of the plant they were taken to a viewing area above the control room. The movie creators did an excellent job with the set, the employees, even the jargon was spot on. They did an incredible job recreating a power plant control room and how it functions.

While the news crew was above the control room an event happened that forced the plant operators into action. What was a little more troubling than it should've been due to misoperating equipment was made to be a lot more harrowing than it should've been. Although illegal (due to national security concerns), the cameraman from the news crew was rolling film of the operators in the control room during the event. The news crew went wild over their find because they believed they'd just witnessed a near nuclear meltdown.

Now I'm going to put on my power company system operator hat.

A power grid system operator has many of the same duties as a nuclear power plant operator. The control rooms are virtually identical and both operators are tasked with monitoring gauges, meters, levels, load flows, etc. When an alarm goes off both operators are supposed to CALMLY and precisely assess the situation, then take the appropriate action to mitigate or solve the situation. Most of the time the problems are minor and take very little action. Every once in a while a problem is major, which doesn't mean there's going to be a catastrophe, it only means that the decisions are more critical and should be made by more than one person.

Having said that, what may look like a red-level emergency to a layman could be a slightly out of the ordinary emergency to the operator. What occurred in the beginning of this movie was a slightly out of the ordinary emergency that was exacerbated by a level gauge that was stuck. The shift supervisor, Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon), handled the situation superbly and staved off a problem that could have been worse.

The news personnel on site, reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) and cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas), interpreted the events a lot differently and wanted to make a mountain out of a molehill. At this point in the movie the news personnel on site were being very irresponsible. They wanted to alert the public of a problem they didn't need to worry about.

I liken it to an airplane flight. I don't need to be aware of every event in the cockpit. There are trained professionals at the helm and they probably have to interpret, assess, and handle several situations every flight. Is it responsible, because of the public's right to know, to apprise passengers and the public at large of every event that occurs in flight?

Fortunately, at the news station, there was an executive there to prevent Kim Wells from going on the air with her "story." He had to protect the news station from being sued and himself from going to prison for illegally videotaping a nuclear control room.

Eventually, through due diligence, the shift supervisor Jack did find a problem--not the problem Kim and Richard wanted to run with but a serious problem nonetheless.

Here is where I want to make a clear distinction. Jack, the nuclear power plant employee, found a serious problem on his own by being thorough and vigilant. The media did not find the problem and the problem wasn't uncovered due to pressure from the media.

What the nuclear plant higher ups did with the information and concerns Jack brought forward was most unfortunate. For the sake of savings they decided to ignore his warnings running the risk of harming millions of people from a nuclear disaster.

The movie came to a dramatic conclusion with two clear messages.

Nuclear power is dangerous

The media is your friend

On the first point I will somewhat agree. Nuclear power is used worldwide without incident but little attention is given to that. For every Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, or Fukishima there are probably 100 little known nuclear plants with good safety records.

On point two I will disagree vehemently. The media is not your friend. The media is out for ratings. If they happen to assist you in the process then that's a bonus.

This was a very hard-hitting and serious movie. I think some of the actions taken were extreme and definitely dramatized for entertainment sake, but nothing here was too far-fetched.
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Tense Nuclear Thriller
HotToastyRag30 September 2017
In the sixties, Jane Fonda took roles where she was beautiful, charming, and a little silly. In the seventies, she took charge. If you like her in strong, feminist roles, you'll like her in The China Syndrome. She plays a reporter who, in the words of the trailer, is "paid to smile, not to think", and while she's visiting a nuclear power plant with her cameraman Michael Douglas, they witness an emergency shutdown.

If you've seen the famous clip of Jack Lemmon looking at his shaking cup of coffee, you've seen a clip from this movie. He plays a supervisor at the plant, but when he notices something's wrong, his superiors refuse to listen to him. While the three leads try to fix and expose the problems that could potentially kill millions of people, they're stifled and threatened at every turn. If you like thrillers that try to take on the establishment like Three Days of the Condor or Fail-Safe, you'll love this tense drama that snagged four Oscar nominations, for actor, actress, original screenplay, and set direction. I don't usually like movies like this, because they're a little too scary for my taste, but give it a watch and see what you think.
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AaronCapenBanner27 November 2013
James Bridges directed this nuclear-age thriller that stars Jane Fonda as TV newswoman Kimberly Wells, who, along with her cameraman Richard Adams(played by Michael Douglas) do an investigative report on a nearby nuclear power plant when a near-meltdown occurs, though plant management deny it as such, Kimberly isn't convinced, and manages to persuade nervous technician Jack Godell(played by Jack Lemmon) to go on air to tell what he knows; this leads to a hostage situation with potentially disastrous consequences... Good direction and thoughtful(if one-sided script) with Jack Lemmon outshining the two leads with a fantastic supporting performance as a man who does the right thing, even though it means his personal & professional ruin. Wilford Brimley costars.
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safenoe26 August 2021
The China Syndrome is a very powerful movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat for sure. The subject matter sounds dry, but Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas bring this movie to life. This was before Jane Fonda became the fitness icon of the 80s with leg warmers, and Michael Douglas became a 90s icon with Basic Instinct and Falling Down.
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Those '70s conspiracy movies - nothing like 'em!
Mr-Fusion10 February 2014
"The China Syndrome" makes for a potboiler of a story, and the fact that a similar incident happened just after the film's release gives it a frightening authenticity. Granted, there probably weren't any hit men in the real-life Pennsylvania tragedy, but this is nonetheless heady stuff. The movie unfolds at a leisurely pace, but the mounting tension always keeps things moving. And it's grounded by some good performances (chiefly Jack Lemmon, although Jane Fonda has a handle on the human- interest-turned-investigative reporter). Michael Douglas is also no slouch, what with his full-on Kenny Loggins vibe.

It really stung when a key character was killed, but it didn't detract from my enjoyment of the film. "The China Syndrome" is a remarkably tense movie and takes us back to a time when the news media weren't useless.

Great movie. And those silent credits are unbelievably haunting!

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Powerful but the Technical Adviser was kicked out, totally inaccurate!!
elo-equipamentos21 November 2017
This movie comes from the waves of the disaster movies of the seventies, even making a huge success in that time, but slipped in a fake dramatization, the technical adviser probably was fired for the producers naturally, l've been working in oils field and relatives machines, l'm pretty sure it's never gonna happens like exposed in the picture, pipe plumbing are welding very carefully and then radiography taken by each section, another important info, in nuclear power plant are provide of several Pumps with by pass to be use just in case of fail of some them, still even in case of welding rupture or cracking it didn't shake the building like shown in the movie, well maybe someone asking about Chernobyl, it's totally different because the URSS's breakdown was the main cause of the disaster, they didn't have enough money to make a proper and fair maintenance, Fukujima was damaged by earthquake it's a natural event in Japan, all Nuclear Power Plant are safe instead unclean of course, they don't have any safe destination to waste heavy water!!


First watch: 1983 / How many: 5 / Source: TV-Cable TV-DVD / Rating: 8
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