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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