The China Syndrome (1979)

“This is coverage – not controversy.”

From the annals of big hair and post-Watergate history comes a relic of a film that truly stands a testament to the saying “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.”

The China Syndrome is a film that refreshingly doesn’t spell every single point out to the audience, and actually credits a fair amount of intelligence to them. And for its audience, it’s one of the most thrilling experiences of paranoia based on paranoia alone.

Let me elaborate on that one – plenty of films use paranoia to create tension but it’s usually a brief prelude to the wham-bang action to follow; this is not a bad thing, and is quite often my favourite part of a thriller – Halloween and Marble Hornets are at their best when they have tension building, but it always leads to a payoff.

On the other hand, The China Syndrome is built almost entirely on the possibility that something could happen – and we really don’t want it to.


Jane Fonda plays Kimberly Wells, a local news-reporter who’s been delegated to puff-pieces at the end of the news, and as is pointed out to her quite bluntly by the studio boss, “wasn’t hired for her investigative abilities.” The trailer for the film accurately describes her as “paid to smile, not to think.”

She’s assigned to film part of a series on “Energy in California”, which includes a promotional piece for the Ventana nuclear power plant, which needs a bit of a publicity boost. Safety hearings being held nearby are giving a lot of publicity to the anti-nuclear-power movement, and the company who built Ventana are trying to get another plant’s construction greenlit quickly; the oppositional voices aren’t helping their cause. The shoot starts out as a standard segment on how a nuclear power plant works, but while they’re there, Kimberly and her camera crew, Richard and Hector (Michael Douglas and Daniel Valdez, respectively) witness an incident in the control room.

A tremor shakes the building, and the engineers, led by Jack Goddel (Jack Lemmon) start draining the excess water from the reactor valves. When things don’t correct themselves like they’re meant to, Jack taps one of his gauges, and discovers the needle’s been stuck in place, giving them false readings – the water levels are now dangerously low. Through some swift action on Jack’s part, and a fair helping of sheer dumb luck, things sort themselves out, although Jack is left unsettled by a second, barely perceptible tremor he saw ripple through his coffee mug. The Ventana PR team quickly explain the incident as nothing more than a “routine turbine trip”, although Kimberly and Richard (who’s been surreptitiously filming the control room), are not so sure.

Thinking they’ve got the story of the year at their hands, Kimberly and Richard rush back to the station to prepare it for that evening’s broadcasts, only to be told by the studio boss, Don Jacovic, that the story’s being shelved and the footage stored in the film vault until they get more facts on it. It becomes clear that the studio is being influenced by the sway of the power industry, and that the story won’t see the light of day, especially when the power plant has already launched an “inquiry” – which is mainly for show.

Kimberly and Richard persist in trying to get the story out, and when Richard takes the footage to two experts, they reveal that the power plant came perilously close to “The China Syndrome” – a theoretical notion that if the core was exposed without coolant, the reactor would melt through the earth all the way to the other side (China is not meant as the literal destination) – the greater fallout of such a catastrophe would be actual radioactive fallout, as the reactor would hit groundwater and release nuclear gas over a large area.

At the same time, Jack begins investigating the plant itself, and uncovers some serious corners being cut (such as Xeroxed x-rays of weld points passing off as legitimate safety checks) and becomes convinced the reactor is too unstable to run at full speed.

When shady characters from the power industry threaten Kimberly, Richard and Jack, they band together to expose the incident at Ventana. Through various interferences along the way, Jack is forced to arm himself inside the control room of Ventana, and demands an interview with Kimberly on live-TV to get the story out, and to get proper checks performed on the plant before it runs at full power. The Ventana PR team agree, only to bide time until a SWAT team can take him out. They distract Jack (and Kimberly, who is in the control room with him) by triggering the same malfunction that kickstarted it all at the beginning of the film, and while he tries to resolve it, the SWAT team bust in and shoot Jack dead, but not before he reveals that he can feel the plant tearing itself apart.

In the aftermath of this chaos, Ventana tries to paint Jack as an “emotionally disturbed” employee who’d been drinking and wasn’t in control. Kimberly manages to get Jack’s best friend and colleague to admit that Jack was “the sanest man he knew” and wouldn’t have taken such action unless it was necessary. The film ends on an ominous note as the news cameras switch to the coloured bars, and the credits roll in silence.


It’s definitely a film that was born out of the growing distrust of the establishment following Vietnam and Watergate, and it shows, but it’s not a dated statement. There’s an inherent distrust in the film, of large corporations, of the media and especially of nuclear power itself, but this is all conveyed though nuanced characters and how they react to the various situations, rather than the film grandstanding and simply voicing polemic viewpoints.

Michael Douglas plays Richard as a casually anti-establishment man, who’s quick to point out the publicity-spin being doctored by the Ventana PR, but still happy to take their money. When he rails against the studio, it’s because of an active silencing of genuine news, not out of some obnoxious rant against THE MAN. When he points out obvious things like the news studio shelving the story because of the influence of the power industry, it lets us get the larger picture the film is painting, without hammering it into us.

Jack Lemmon as Goddel is even better at this, because the character is not written as the only-sane-man archetype. He genuinely believes in the system as it stands, and his frustrations through the film stem from people taking advantage of the system for profit, not because of any inherent flaws in the systems of nuclear power itself. He’s actually quite a tragic figure, having so fully believed in his work, and then having it all unravel before him and culminate in his death by the people he devoted his working life to.

Jane Fonda is easily the standout as Kimberly though, and I think she was robbed of the Oscar (Sally Field? Really?). Kimberly is not just a downtrodden woman fighting in a man’s world, nor is she a perky reporter trying to make it big, nor is she any sort of cliché or by-the-by character we’ve seen before. The film opens in the commercial break before one of her puff-pieces, and she’s desperately trying to get someone at the studio to pay attention to her because of an on-set hiccup. They eventually pay attention – and spend the rest of their time talking about her hair, its colour and if she should change the length – without involving her in the discussion.

From there, we see her segment on singing telegrams, and while Kimberly is everything you need in the likeable-female-reporter who covers such pieces, it’s immediately obvious that she’s better than this material – an aspect that’s reinforced following one of the discussions at the studio about the Ventana story. Jacovic denies the story any airtime, and Kimberly tries to talk to him, only to be told she’s needed for her story, and she moans “I’m going to the zoo – a tiger’s having a birthday party!” It comes immediately after the discussion about a very worthwhile news story, and the triviality of her soft-news is absolutely damning to Kimberly.

However, this is not played in a radical way, and despite “Hanoi-Jane” and all of her activism in the real world filling the role, Kimberly manages to remain a strong female character who can be used to read a feminist standpoint in the film, without it being driven home through overstating. The film knows she’s a strong female character, but it doesn’t mean she needs to have token scenes of empowerment or triumph thrown into a story where they wouldn’t fit.

The real strength of the film after its sensational performances from the leads is how masterfully it creates tension and suspense, all from its plot and situations. Before the film ventures into its conflicts between Big Corporation and the everyman, it’s already aware that Nuclear power has its own inherent faults. Furthermore, it’s obvious how much potential there is for catastrophic damage on a huge scale just in a single reactor core. So when the first incident happens at Ventana, it’s already troubling and worrying. The rest of the tension in the film largely comes from the possibility that it’s going to happen again, without the resources to stop it a second time. It’s not until the third act that traditional thriller tropes, like shady henchman following the main characters, even enter into the film – it’s entirely suspenseful on the merit of a very serious plot, and the machinations of the people with the power doing their best to hide a very real and dangerous threat.

It’s also interesting that the film uses very little in the way of cinematic trickery to reinforce this suspension. At the end of the film, as things are reaching breaking point with Jack in the control room and the SWAT team just outside the doors, the film does use a fair bit of montage editing to convey the tension and franticness of the situation, but its done well and without distraction. Throughout the rest of the film, there’s no lingering shots, no dramatic stares from evil men, and significantly no score – the only music in the film is diegetic (although they cheat a little during the opening credits, with a song nominally playing on the radio that somehow fills the entire soundtrack) and as a result of this, it means that the meat of the film, the threat of a nuclear meltdown and the gravity of the situation, comes almost entirely from the characters.

The first time we see Kimberly doing one of her news segments, it’s establishing. The second time, it’s used to contrast the story she wants to report as opposed to the story she’s being told to, and anytime after that, it becomes an almost anxious moment as we know there’s so much more she needs to do instead of talking about a vet who makes house calls. Other times, like in the control room while the first incident is taking place, just the mere sight of the needle slipping down from its stuck-point is enough to make your stomach drop with dread, because it so clearly and immediately conveys that whatever the engineers are doing, they’re doing it wrong, and that on the other side of that tiny little needle is a nuclear reactor that’s about to blow. It’s the touches like this that give the film its suspense, and a palpable sense that time is of the essence more than the mere presence of hired goons lurking around shadowy corners.

There’s really only one thing I can think of to fault the film, and it’s a very minor thing – the chairman of the power company who owns the Ventana plant appears at the end, trying to regain control after Jack’s taken over the control room. In stark contrast to the balanced and nuanced performances throughout the rest of the film, this guy plays his role as though there’s a thunderclap and lightning every time he appears on screen. Admittedly, he’s meant to be a dick of a man appearing in a situation where he’d hardly be relaying any pleasantries, but his performance is so out of tone with the rest of the film that it’s a bit distracting.

But still, he’s on screen for maybe three minutes in total, and it’s not enough to bring the entire movie down – and I had to look for something bad to say about this movie. This is a great film, and still every bit as relevant as it was when it first came out. Of course, the accident at Three Mile Island occurred not even a full fortnight after The China Syndrome came out, so that adds another layer of significance to the proceedings – especially in an uncomfortable moment where the nuclear expert explains that The China Syndrome could leave an area the size of Pennsylvania laid to waste.

The film has been discontinued on DVD in Australia, which is a shame as the inside of the case has a pretty decent little foreword about the movie and the context into which it was released. It is still available for rent through YouTube, or to rent/buy through iTunes. If you like thoughtful, serious movies that are made really, really well I highly recommend you check it out.



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