The 'China' Syndrome refers to a worst case scenario resulting from the meltdown of a nuclear power plant, when the components melt through underlying earth until the other side of the earth, hence China. In practice, the contact with groundwater would provoke enough radiation steam to render a whole state totally uninhabitable. If the 'China' syndrome is not to be taken literally, the nuclear danger surely is.
And the subject is even more relevant today, after the infamous Three Miles Island accident, which by an irony of fate, happened a few days after the film's release, after Chernobyl and more lately, Fukushima, any normal person of the 21st century would regard nuclear energy with a certain distance. "The China Syndrome" exploits legitimate fears less to stand as a pamphlet against nuclear energy, but to awaken people about an industry that still relies on human factor and business lobbying, no matter how advanced, sophisticated and safe the technology is supposed to be. Our environmental conscience and self-preservation instinct are inevitably challenged during "The China Syndrome", one of the most suspenseful and harrowing thrillers of the 70's.
And 'thriller' in an understatement: what the film portrays is the clash between two worlds, and not the least powerful. The nuclear industry is forward-looking, it's still considered as one of the most profitable and powerful sources of energy, which implies lots of bucks for industrialists, the country and building companies. For "The Simpsons" fan, the plant owners' cynicism would immediately remind of the evil Mr. Burns' contempt for safety, this time, without the laughs. The second power is media, TV at the peak of its capacity to touch people, news reports, journalists, hegemony of TV has pinnacled in the late 70's and early 80's, and beyond their neutrality and vocation, they too are governed by lobbies, money and 'priorities'.
What makes "The China Syndrome" so gripping is that the clash between these two powers is portrayed from the perspective of people who believe in their jobs. Jack Lemmon is the namesake Godell, the chief engineer in charge of the control room. The nuclear is all his life and when the first incident occurs, he's as distraught as we are. And Jane Fonda is Kimberley Wells, the news reporter who cover 'special' news and Richard is her rebel cameraman played by a bearded and young Michael Douglas. After filming the incident, it's Richard first who flairs something fishy but his attempts to convince Kimberley are first undermined by her boss' pressure not to show the news. Similarly, Godell and his co-workers are cleared and the Public Relations manager minimize the incident. The case is closed.
But Richard keeps the footage and shows it to two nuclear experts in Kimberley's presence. They reveal that the incident was very serious and California came close to what they call the 'China Syndrome'; the revelation in itself is absolutely chilling. At the same time, Lemmon pursues his personal investigation and finds out that the X-rays pictures of the welds, indicating the good functioning of the plant were falsified and deliberately signed by the employee of the building company. Godell reassembles the pieces of the puzzle and leaves the site under thinly disguised threats, accepting to cooperate with the press, making him an outcast in his own company, everyone turning his back on him, notably his co-worker and friend Ted, played by Wilford Brimley. The movie then turns into one of these gripping paranoid thrillers, one of the 70's best trademarks.
To maintain a realistic documentary-like format, the film uses a lot of technical material, whether it's nuclear or journalistic jargon, and makes it accessible to us, viewers. It's thrilling because it feels real. The other strength is undoubtedly the acting: the trio that fills the film's poster is made of real persons, not characters. Fonda is a journalist who starts compromising herself to satisfy her personal ambitions until Richard and Godell open her eyes on the true meaning of her profession. Lemmon delivers one of his greatest performances as a brave worker realizing that the most meaningful thing in his life is undermined by corrupted minds. When he tries to stop on-going scheme, it's not just for people but because he cares too much for his job not to unveil the truth. And in an admirable coincidence that confirms the intelligence of the script, the same goes for Kimberley.
There are indeed two kinds of professionals in "The China Syndrome", those who care so much they hide everything, and those who tell people what they must know because they respect their jobs. "The China Syndrome" is a harrowing quest for truth, as the duty of both the nuclear industry and the media, even more vital because it directly touches the public's safety. Indeed, when the shutdowns start, when mugs of coffee vibrate, when lights are turned off and a pump starts shaking, we're all on the edge of our seat, our hearts pounding to at the on-going battle between the media and the plant, and their climactic race against the clock.
And while a conventional ending could have damaged the whole experience, the conclusion was perfect, because it didn't deprive the film from the cynicism it was trying to denounce, but didn't make Godell and Kimberley's battle, a vain effort. Journalism can bring awareness when it's accomplished in a professional and respectable way. However, it's worth wondering, within the continuous flows of images poured out by TV, when a nuclear flash report is followed by an advertising clip, whether people would still be aware of all the dangers that surround them.
TV is a medium of many effects that can unfortunately cancel each other. And I guess one of the reasons, "The China Syndrome" stood the test of time is to show how prophetic the film was, in its realistic and honest portrayal of two powers that prove both their necessity
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