The China Syndrome (1979) Poster

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What can really be said?
LionTamarin21 January 2003
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 perfect 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.
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Crackerjack thriller!
moonspinner5529 January 2006
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 ****
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A chilling, reality-based, horror film.
moveefrk15 May 2002
"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).
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"And Power's What It's All About"
stryker-52 March 1999
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 heat?

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.
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About the media as much as nuclear power
jem-1625 November 1998
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, secondly, presented.

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.
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Still Relevant After (Nearly) 25 Years
abvr2 September 2003
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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Art imitates life
tlbrn8517 December 2002
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 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.
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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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Nuclear nightmare
virek21312 July 2001
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.
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Jack Lemmon's Best
Ric-71 February 2009
I thoroughly enjoyed this film when it was first released, and on each occasion I've seen it since. The political drama is effective, if not especially new or inspired. The decades since the release of the film have demonstrated that the willingness to cut costs at the expense of public safety is definitely not just something imagined by a screenwriter.

However, I think the most impressive element of this film is Jack Lemmon's performance. It is absolutely astonishing to watch him at work. He has the gift to be able to communicate so much, at times without saying a word. Next time you watch this film, check out Jack's face at the times he is not saying anything. He does not need to speak (or worse yet, to mug) to let you know what's going through his mind.

I am calling this a spoiler, because of the impression it made on me when I first saw the film: in Lemmon's last scene in the film, as he is lying on the floor, he feels a slight vibration. The terror in his eyes is one of the most frightening images I have seen in any film. It is perfect acting, because it conveys instantly the threat about to occur--if Jack's character is so terrified, there is certainly something awful about to happen. And it does.
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Places and people on the verge of meltdown...
Howlin Wolf22 May 2007
All the right elements seemed to conspire here to make this a memorable thriller for years to come. You have the stellar cast - Michael Douglas in an uncharacteristic 'free-spirit' role that pretty much launched his movie career, Fonda playing her typical forthright female doing her bit for womens lib, and Jack Lemmon as assured as ever showing us a man with a crisis of confidence. Give them a hot-button topic about big business being duplicitous, and that's encouraging for a kickoff, but to have life imitating art so soon after is a marketing man's dream.

The script is impressively taut, intelligent but mercifully keeping the jargon to a minimum, and there is a genuine sense of sustained tension brought in play by the director as our three protagonists race to beat the clock. If you like 'whistle blowing' dramas, then this is not quite as good as "The Insider", but the whole thing is more than nervy enough.
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I may be wrong, but I'd say you're lucky to be alive.
lastliberal-853-25370812 March 2011
Ripped from today's headlines! An explosion at a nuclear power plant on Japan's devastated coast made leaking radiation — or even outright meltdown — the central threat menacing a nation just beginning to grasp the scale of a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami.

A crew from a local TV station was present when an accident occurred at a nuclear power plant, and the core cam dangerously close to being exposed. Like Japan, this accident was caused by an earthquake. The TV station is trying to hide the story, but the cameraman (Michael Douglas) shows the film he surreptitiously took to experts. Wanting to get out of reporting fluff, Jane Fonda follows up to get the plant expert (Jack Lemmon) to talk.

Fonda is magnificent in this film, and Lemmon shows a whole range of emotion during the accident, and afterward as a man who wants to tell the truth even if it hurts his company.

When a company stands to lose a billion dollar investment, you can be sure that there will be an attempt to murder someone (Daniel Valdez) to keep things quiet.

Lemmon and Fonda were both nominated for Oscars, and probably should have gotten them.

Things depicted in the story have actually occurred in the past (before this film), and it was fascinating to see the reactions of the characters. The writers did a magnificent job, and were also nominated for an Oscar.
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Press Censored even in 1979
alicecbr22 July 2001
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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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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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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Underrated Thriller
keachs8 February 2016
Wow. Not sure why this thriller has so few rating in IMDb. (Actually not so unusual for any non-blockbusters from this era) Almost every aspect of the film is rock solid: setting script, acting, story-line, and the issue is still relevant 35 years later. The characters and scenes in the studio and nuclear power plant are totally believable. There no superfluous scenes at all, no added sex scenes, no smart alack comedy or in-your face scenes. Jack Lemmon in my opinion is also very underrated and gives a great performance as Jack Godell, and Jane Fonda and Michael Douglass are very good in their respective roles. I had not realized that Michael Douglass produced this film, along with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest four years earlier when he was barely 30 years old. Though some of the costuming and settings obviously reflect the era of the film, it does not feel dated at all. The China Syndrome holds it's own with the other more well-known films of it's day and probably surpasses in quality, the majority current releases put out by Hollywood.
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An Effective Film with Awesome Performances!
namashi_129 March 2012
'The China Syndrome' is An Effective Film with Awesome Performances! It's a brilliantly written film, along-with performances, that are unforgettable.

'The China Syndrome' Synopsis: A reporter finds what appears to be a cover-up of safety hazards at a nuclear power plant.

'The China Syndrome' was controversial when released, but over the years, has gained a substantial fan-following among film-buffs. I loved the film, because it arrested me. It's An Effective Film, that holds your interest. Mike Gray, T.S. Cook & James Bridges's Screenplay is brilliantly written & offers heart-pounding moments. James Bridges's Direction, on the other-hand, is compelling. Cinematography & Editing are well-done. Art Design is satisfactory.

Performance-Wise: Jack Lemmon delivers a Stunning Performance. He literally steals the show! Jane Fonda looks amazing & delivers another great performance. Michael Douglas is natural to the core. Scott Brady does very well.

On the whole, 'The China Syndrome' is a must watch.
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davidbyrne772 May 2004
Warning: Spoilers
*spoilers within*

When I first saw this film on late-night TV, I was glued to the screen! Up until that point, it was the most suspenseful film I'd ever seen. It was also the most infuriating film I'd seen, due to what the character of Jack Goddel has to endure - you'll be p***ed-mad! This is my favourite Jack Lemmon film - his performance as the safety-concious and ill-fated nuclear plant worker can't be matched. I really felt for his character. Granted this is not a 'perfect' film - it does take some Hollywood liberties - but it is extremely good and very well acted, especially by Lemmon, may he rest in peace.
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Katmiss23 May 2001
Warning: Spoilers
James Bridges' "The China Syndrome" is a first rate thriller; a model for those who want to make a genuinely terrifying thriller but don't know how.

Most thrillers end with the standard shoot-em-up and chase that ends with the villain getting what he/she deserves. But Bridges understands that such a standard finale isn't the case in some scenarios. "The China Syndrome" is thrilling in a way no one would expect. It has the type of ending that's so unexpected, but yet so logical.

The film stars three (then) current Oscar winners: Jack Lemmon (Best Actor 1973 for "Save the Tiger"), Jane Fonda (Best Actress 1971 and 1978 for "Klute" and "Coming Home" respectively) and Michael Douglas (Best Picture 1975 for producing "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest". This isn't your standard "spot the star" flick that became so popular in the 70s. The acting is so solid and strong that we forget who's playing the roles and believe that the characters are real people. That's a testament to the collective ablities of all three actors. They may be stars, but they're actors first.

There is no music score in the film. Asides from a few background songs from jukeboxes or TV shows, there is nothing. Bridges doesn't allow any directorial style to come through on screen. He is simply presenting the material straightforward. With a strong dramatic story like this, we don't need a score to distract us. It kind of strikes me as a predecessor to the Dogma 95 filmseries started by Lars Von Trier in 1997. It focuses on the characters and story rather than style.

The story is about a nuclear power plant located in Southern California. **SPOILER** An accident appears to have happened and basically the film is about Lemmon,Fonda and Douglas try to expose the truth. In a way this is not a spoiler, since the trailer, TV spots, video boxes and reviews all give this away. But from this seemingly simple premise, a surprisingly complex morality play springs and the suspense comes from human nature and the actions of people rather than a villain framing another guy (although this is an element in the film). That's what makes "The China Syndrome" so good.

**** out of 4 stars
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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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NOT a political movie
Spleen24 August 1999
Honestly, some people would see Stalin's face in their breakfast cereal. Yes, this is a movie with a message; no, it's NOT a political message. The claim is that nuclear power is dangerous. What does that have to do with politics? It's a claim about physics, engineering, the psychology of power plant workers and so forth. Anyone who came away from `The China Syndrome' with the feeling that it was left wing clearly got that feeling from reading a biography of Jane Fonda or something of that kind - certainly not from what's on the screen.

Nor is `The China Syndrome' anti-nuclear propaganda. It's very hard to interpret it as saying that nuclear fission ought to be abandoned as a power source; rather, it draws our attention to what could go wrong and invites us to think for ourselves about how to guard against this. One of the central characters (Michael Douglas) IS a crank, who drives me up the wall by mispronouncing `nuclear' (why DO people do that?), and it's annoying that he should coincidentally turn out to be right; but the heroes are the saner people, Jane Fonda and, in particular, Jack Lemmon.

Mind you, I don't want to make great claims about this film. Qua film it's no more than ordinary. It dates itself partly because the Three Mile Island accident was worse than anything it depicts, and Chernobyl was MUCH worse - although being overtaken by reality isn't the movie's fault - and partly because the ending is so carefully tailored to address the America of 1979. And while that ending IS dramatic, most of the preceding events aren't. I'm not just talking about the power plant when I say that nothing much happens. It's a decent movie-of-the-week: one of the very best of a poor genre.
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Nuclear powerful
jc-osms9 January 2016
70's Hollywood made so many great contemporary political thrillers like "The Parallax View", "Three Nights Of The Condor", "All The President's Men" to name but three, but this one at the end of the decade I'd somehow missed. Of course everyone will know about the coincidence of the Three Mile Island incident which occurred within days of the film's original release which gave it instant topicality and of course gave it a commercial boost, but subsequent nuclear-related disasters at Chernobyl and Fukishama mean that the movie's relevance doesn't diminish as time goes by.

All of that would be of no matter unless it wasn't a cracking good film which it certainly is. It's superbly cast for one thing not only with a dream-team of Lemmon, Fonda and Douglas in the main roles (all garnered deserved Oscar nominations for their work) but it's also well cast in the supporting roles too. The plot is convincingly believable at almost every stage with only the somewhat contrived melodramatic climax slightly at odds with what had gone before.

The film makes telling points about corporate greed over safety considerations still relevant in every walk of business today, but also confronts the limits of free speech and obviously, the debate on the use of nuclear power as an energy source in today's society, but at a more basic level it's just a top-class thriller which ratchets up the tension throughout.

The acting just couldn't be better, Fonda is convincing as the lightweight "feel-good spot" TV reporter who scents a real story for the first time, Douglas as the rule-bending maverick camera-man desperate to get the story out there and Lemmon in one of his last great roles as the company man whose loyalty is tested by his own conscience when he becomes aware of the cover-ups at the plant.

Sure the fashions and depicted technology to name but two elements are dated as only a film set in the 70's can be, but the message of the movie combined with its entertainment value easily transcends these to deliver a taut, exciting and thought-provoking film which was one of the best of, in my opinion, a great decade for Hollywood movie-making.
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Still a great example of a low-budget classic
mike4812816 November 2015
It could still happen today. Still relevant with today's aging nuclear plants and terrorism threats. Terrific award-winning casting of Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda, as the TV news reporter who wants to do "real news" stories. Low-key and believable in every way. Plant equipment breaks down. Stuck analog "needles" have happened before in real power plants. Almost a meltdown occurs as cooling water levels drop too low and the control rods start to fail. The plant tries a cover-up to no avail. It is all filmed by Douglas (the news cameraman) who almost loses his life over the footage! Also,a nuclear plant in Midland, Michigan had faked weld x-rays, just like in this movie. It was converted into a gas-fired power plant, as minor leaks in non-radioactive water lines are o.k. As everyone knows, in a "China Syndrome", the atomic core melts completely and burns thru "all the way to China." It's a figure of speech, of course! Released about 12 days within the time-frame of the real 3-Mile-Island disaster and not unlike Chernobyl and that new disaster in Japan. None of these 3 places will be safe areas in our lifetime. A great "little" movie with no "monsters" or other such nonsense!
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Media and nuclear energy, two powers, both necessary ... both dangerous ...
ElMaruecan827 May 2013
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 … and dangerousness.
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An intense, superbly acted thriller.
Rockwell_Cronenberg9 March 2012
Wow, talk about a slow burn. The China Syndrome takes a little while to get moving, but once it does it takes off like a bullet and doesn't let up until it's devastating finale. I was in a state of awe for the last fifteen minutes at least, as this tale of a reporter trying to expose the unsafe conditions at a nuclear power plant comes to it's close. Jane Fonda plays Kimberly Wells, a TV journalist who has been stuck doing fluff pieces and never getting the "hard journalism" that she desperately craves. When the opportunity to go into a nuclear facility comes to her, she jumps right on it and, together with Michael Douglas' cameraman Richard Adams, begins to uncover a dangerous operation that could have potentially national consequences. The film splits it's time between the investigative efforts of Wells and Adams, and the internal struggle of Jack Godell, portrayed by the always magnificent Jack Lemmon.

Lemmon turns in yet another phenomenal performance here as Godell, a head worker at the nuclear plant who finds deep conflict within himself when he begins to understand the gravity of his superiors' negligence. Godell is a man who loves his job and has always defended it against crusaders like Wells and Adams, but when he tries to lodge a complaint and gets rejected he finds himself a man without a country, stuck on the line of what he believes in and knows is right. It's a compelling character and Lemmon plays the internal conflict as only he could, exposing an anguish that is heartbreaking, sincere and entirely sympathetic. I found myself feeling so deeply for this man, and as everyone begins to fight against him I wanted so desperately for him to come out the victor. Fonda is appropriately fierce and combative and it's a lot of fun watching Douglas in such a charismatic, explosive role, but the film belongs to Lemmon in every way.

As I said earlier, it takes a little while to really get going, but once Godell's conflict forces him to make a move, everything picks up and the intensity gets higher and higher until the end. The final act features some practically heart stopping suspense, with life and death circumstances that will change the fate of everyone. It's a topical thriller, but an intimate one as well. I miss the days where big stars like Fonda and Lemmon would lead these kind of serious thrillers, because their immense talent makes everything so much stronger. It's a great script and the direction from James Bridges is solid, if not overly impressive, but the real treat of The China Syndrome is watching these superb actors do what they do best.
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