A film about sub-standard work practices that put millions of lives in jeopardy, with minimal characterisation, and full of technical dialogue that might as well be in a foreign language: does it all add up to something disastrous, incapable of enduring as drama? Rather, clocking in at the tail end of America’s finest decade of cinema, The China Syndrome (1979) remains a gripping, spine-tingling masterpiece.
Reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) and her cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) are not unfamiliar with filing throwaway puff pieces despite a yearning for something more. When they’re called out to shoot another nondescript time-filling segment at California’s largest nuclear power plant, their coverage becomes anything but routine. In a classic case of being in the right place at the right time, they watch startled from the gallery as an “incident” takes place. An alarm blares, workers in the hub of operations circling like rats in the suddenly suffocating confines of a maze to re-establish the plant’s equilibrium, foremost amongst them, harried supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon).
Secretly, Richard films the disquieting charade, though it becomes a hot potato in legal terms when he and Kimberly present the footage to their superiors. Despite the story’s headline-grabbing possibilities, they smell the scent of dire legal ramifications should they choose to air it.
The plant closes ranks whilst an internal investigation is undertaken; it ends up disturbingly brief with the official line in press releases assuring the public of the incident’s routine nature. But this is a classic cover-up and a quest to extract the truth begins with Kimberly probing for answers to what really happened, whilst the hot-headed Richard steals their recording for a private screening, hoping a couple of eggheads will provide unbiased interpretations of the event. Meanwhile, Godell does some subtle digging of his own and uncovers some nasty revelations that his own boss would rather remain undiscovered.
Directed by James Bridges, The China Syndrome is a riveting investigation of blunders glossed over for the sake of maintaining profit margins; of meticulousness sacrificed for small-term gains. The screenplay by Bridges, T.S. Cook and Mike Gray, though not packed with substantial backstories for its central trio of characters, is meaty enough, imparting enough depth in its economical telling to make us care deeply about their fates.
Though Fonda and Douglas are the headliners, it’s Lemmon who becomes the story’s heart and soul. Godell is a memorable, impassioned creation; a devoted company man and model employee, he becomes torn between those classic duelling instincts – duty and conscience. We can almost see the cogs turning in his brain as he weighs the pros and cons in moments of heightened stress. Does he expose the danger, thus reducing his career to a puff of dust? Or play lackey, in turn putting millions of lives at risk should his worst fears be confirmed?
The China Syndrome must have prodded away at a sore point in the American subconscious at the time, raising terrifying concerns about a future dimmed by nuclear possibilities. Even now it has the power to disturb; just imagine the enormity of what was at stake, the fate of so many resting in the hands of greedy bureaucrats? It was also an eerily prescient film. Just 12 days after its release, a partial core meltdown – almost identical to the incident depicted in the film – occurred at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Not forgetting the horror of Chernobyl, just a few years later in 1986.
The film raises interesting questions about the role of the media too; instead of the standard depiction of them as vultures who’ll descend on any carcass for the sake of a front-page story, they’re seen as sympathetic, as desperate voices struggling against the tide of lies and subterfuge to extract the truth from decision-makers seemingly beyond reproach.
Another facet of the film that works in its favour is the decision to use no score. As an avid film music fan it does indeed pain me to draw attention to such a creative decision, but in what is a rare occurrence the lack of music actually authenticates the film’s credibility as both realistic drama and social commentary.
The final scenes are not only shaped by airtight suspense, but they remain genuinely chilling. A creeping sensation that some horrifying resolution will be reached swarms over you; just how far will the men in suits really go to keep their secrets under wraps? The answer is truly shocking. Watching the final moments you’ll be overcome with despair and impotent rage, wanting to kick the screen in, screaming “Bastards!”.
The China Syndrome is a sensational film, and yet another prime example of the cinematic greatness of the 1970’s; a film executed with absolute precision by a director at the top of his form working with a taut, first-rate screenplay and inspiring a powerhouse performance by one of the greats in Lemmon. It doesn’t get any better.