The China Syndrome is a film that has stayed in my 'top ten favs' for quite a number of years now and I recently watched it again, so I thought I would review it.
Part financed by Michael Douglas, this is arguably his most relevant piece of work in his career. The China Syndrome deals with nuclear energy and how a power plant cuts corners in safety to get more licenses to open up more factories.
70's icon Jane Fonda plays Kimberley Wells, a female newsreader who usually covers quirky stories for the news at ten. During a report at the Ventana nuclear power plant for a story about the benefits of nuclear energy she and her team witness and film what looks like an accident in the main control room. Michael Douglas plays camera operator Richard Adams. He believes they have footage of a serious incident at the plant. As they delve deeper into what happened they meet up with Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) who also believes there is more than meets the eye to the plant itself.
Watching the film again I was really drawn into the story, much more than I remember the first time around. It really is an absorbing film mainly down to the excellent acting from the three main players. There are also other plot strands throughout the film that keep you entertained and on the edge of your seat.
One of the most gripping scenes is the 'accident' itself. Played just through the control room with Jack Lemmon and his agitated crew it really is a masterpiece of acting - and then you have the secret filming by the bearded Michael Douglas.
Lemmon's performance is excellent from start to finish. Nominated for an Academy Award, he ended up losing out to Dustin Hoffman in Kramer Vs Kramer. (Then again Peter Sellers lost out this year for the excellent Being There - but who cares about Academy Awards anyway?). As he progresses through the film he delves deeper and wants to find out what is happening to the plant that he loves and is actually his life.
Jane Fonda too is superb. I couldn't help thinking of the comedy film 'Anchorman' watching this film. That too has a female anchor covering all the jokey stories and who wants to get her teeth into the big news. But while Anchorman dealt with the sexism side of things, that is never mentioned in The China Syndrome. Fonda becomes obsessed by the story and by the end credits you really feel for her character and the situation she is in.
Director James Bridges isn't someone whose work I am familiar with, but he did go on to direct Bright Lights Big City with Michael J Fox a few years later. It's a very well directed film and I'm surprised he didn't make any more film in this style.
Quite a number of more modern films owe a lot to The China Syndrome's style. Traffic and Syrianna are obviously indebted to how a number of these 'issues' films were made in the 70's. Its not a fantastical film in any way shape or form and the reason it is so successful is because of its believability. It is firmly rooted in 'this could happen' category, and while not a pseudo-documentary, it does ring true throughout.
The 70's was a good decade for cinema, in fact some of my favourite films came from this era - Jaws, The Godfather, The Shining etc. I believe The China Syndrome is as good as those films and I urge everyone to go check it out!
The China Syndrome is a film which features a TV film crew which is at a nuclear power plant when a crisis occurs in the control room. They manage to discreetly film what goes on, and the reporter and camera-man want to report to the world what they've seen.
The film's pretext was at the time very relevant as there was an incident the same year in the United States at Three Mile Island, and the safety of nuclear power had been much questioned at the time, and indeed has been questioned ever since.
The film is well made with a good cast of actors and actresses, starring Jane Fonda as Kimberley Wells (the reporter), Michael Douglas as Richard Adams (the camera-man) and Jack Lemmon as Jack Godell (the nuclear power plant control room operator). The film was also nominated for four oscars.
For me, the strongest actor in a talented line-up was Jack Lemmon. The film shows a number of different angles, such as the retiscence of the TV company to show the film and also the way that the operators of the nuclear power plant wanted the news covered up to prevent panic. Jack Lemmon's character though believes in doing what is right and what the average person would expect, ie, wanting to fix what was wrong in the plant.
The final scenes I felt initially were over-played and a little melo-dramatic, but I suppose also that in a thriller film such as this, such things are a little inevitable. It did distract me though from the message in the film.
Generally the film had good effects throughout, I did wonder why though the scenes of the nuclear power plant struggling and shaking looked so crude and forced. It looked a little amateurish with bits of machinery shaking to such extremes and then falling apart, indeed, it looked like a crude model had been constructed on a smaller scale.
However, the issues behind the film, the worry of nuclear power and the rather shallow nature sometimes of TV news broadcasting could well be made again today along similar lines and be just as relevant and watchable.
The DVD that I rented had absolutely no additional features on, such as commentaries or additional scenes. However, since the film was made in 1979, such extra features are much harder to add than they would be for a film which had just been made. Some additional effort though would have been welcomed.
Currently this film is available for 6 pounds from Amazon, well worth a look.
~ ~ This movie, The China Syndrome (1979), about a potential ecological and human disaster at a nuclear powered electricity generating plant opened in the USA on the 12th March 1979. Only 12 days later, on the 28th March 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania came close to total meltdown in an accident that closely (and somewhat eerily) mirrored the scenario portrayed in the movie. Seven years later, on April 25th 1986, the unthinkable actually happened, when the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine, again closely following the plot of this movie, spewed its radioactive poison across much of Europe, killing countless thousands of people and leaving the area surrounding the plant a nuclear wasteland for generations to come.
~ ~ I had been active in the anti-nuclear movement throughout the 1970s in Scotland, and so naturally when this movie was released it was a must see for me. I wasnt disappointed, and felt that the hypothetical disaster that it postulated was very lifelike and realistic. So it really came as no great surprise when it later took on real life significance both in the USA and in the Ukraine.
Naturally, the disaster at the Three Mile Island plant didnt harm the film at the box office, coming so soon after its cinema release!
~ ~ The film has three co-stars, Michael Douglas, (who also produced) Jane Fonda, and the brilliant Jack Lemmon. Fonda plays TV reporter Kimberly Wells, who along with her hippie, left wing cameraman Richard Adams (Douglas) is sent to shoot a TV feature on the power plant. Kimberley, while ambitious, is no Pulitzer Prize winner, and is used by the TV station to cover only soft stories with no real hard news potential.
But while being shown around the plant by the senior shift supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) an emergency takes place in the control room, which Adams secretly captures on video despite being ordered to shut down his camera. As the ground trembles and shakes, and technicians run around like headless chickens trying desperately to remedy the problem, it becomes patently obvious that all is not well with the safety of the plant. On this occasion the potential accident is brought back under control, but not before Kimberley and Adams realise they have inadvertently stumbled on what could be a major scoop.
But when they excitedly hand in their report and footage to their TV station bosses, they are both amazed and disgusted when the decision is taken to suppress the story for fear of litigation from the powerful corporate forces that own the power plant.
~ ~ Kimberley and Adams decide to pursue the story in spite of their bosss objections, and relentlessly harass the hapless supervisor Jack Godell, who is only too well aware that all is not well with his beloved facility. Hes on a hiding to nothing, with unbelievable pressure being brought to bear not only from the intrepid reporters but from his own bosses, who want the plant brought back up to full operating capacity ASAP. Eventually Godells social conscience gets the better of him, and despite dire threats to both his livelihood and his life, he decides to spill the beans about the problems at the plant to the reporters, before an uncontrollable accident envelops California in a lethal cloud of radioactive dust.
But when the plant is brought back to full power despite Godells protestations and reservations the inevitable happens, and a catastrophic loss of coolant water occurs with the resultant deadly consequences!
~ ~ I enjoyed this movie just as much 26 years after its original release as I did the first time around. Granted, the fashions and hairstyles of the actors are just a tad dated in 2005, but the underlying anti-nuclear message is just as powerful and relevant today as it was in the late 70s and early 80s.
Jane Fonda is excellent as the crusading, ambitious reporter, and Michael Douglas convincing as her bolshie, anti-establishment cameraman. But, for me, the actor who claims the lions share of the plaudits is the late, great Jack Lemmon. His portrayal of angst ridden, overworked, plant supervisor Jack Godell struggling with his conscience is truly inspired, and rightly won Lemmon an Oscar nomination for best actor. Unfortunately, he came up against another great that particular year, when Dustin Hoffman lifted the award for his portrayal of the father in Kramer v Kramer. Lemmon did manage to win a BAFTA gong for best actor though, along with the same award at the Cannes Film Festival. His co-star Fonda lifted the BAFTA award for Best Actress.
~ ~ I came across this movie again just recently when it was shown for a period on Sky Movies, and then again when I happened across the DVD on the bargain shelf of my local video store. (Xtravision) The DVD was on offer for only 7.50, in a buy two for 15 offer, so naturally it now has a place in my own (rapidly growing) DVD library. The DVD that I have was released back in October 2003, and has been re-mastered to improve the colour definition, and been given a new Dolby 5.1 soundtrack. Its sadly lacking in any extras, but there is now a Region 1 (USA) Special Edition that was released by Sony in October of last year (2004) that seemingly is better endowed with extra features. The newer Special Edition DVD contains some deleted scenes, interviews with all the surviving cast, and a couple of half hour length documentary features.
~ ~ The original 2003 DVD is on offer at Amazon UK for only £5.79, and the newer Special Edition for £7.99. As always when buying DVDs (or anything else for that matter!) it pays to shop around. Im sure I spotted the original DVD on offer in the HMV sale just after Christmas at only 4.99!
~ ~ This movie comes with the mad cabbies highest possible recommendation. If youre an advocate of the use of nuclear power to generate electricity, I defy you to feel the same way after watching this movie!
Directed by James Bridges (Also "Urban Cowboy" 1980)
Running Time: 122 minutes
© KenJ March 2005
I am sure that when most people think about nuclear power stations everybody has a little nagging doubt at the back of their mind – “Is this plant 100% safe?” This film works on this fear, in particular the possibility of the nuclear core overheating and causing a melt-down with an associated catastrophic radiation accident. A local film crew making an educational film about energy sources is present at a nuclear plant when an accident occurs. Although the accident is contained it raises implications about the whole plant’s safety. Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) the Shift Supervisor at the plant starts his own investigation and finds some serious areas of concern with regard to the plants maintenance records. The TV crew is fronted by Kimberley Wells (Jane Fonda) with camera man Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) and they sense that more is going on than the power company is admitting to. The film builds on the relationship between Jack Godell and the film crew and the concern they all have for safety. This plot of the film keeps you riveted and the film is extremely well made. Enough (but not too many) techo-facts are put across to give the viewer a good idea of what is happening and what Jack Godell is concerned about. The fight between big money, profits and safety is depicted really well and the acting of all the characters is exceptional. A large amount of the story is filmed within the nuclear power plant and the camera angles always give you a feeling of the size and magnitude of the power station. This is a very believable film and I found myself keep thinking about the Three Mile Island accident in the USA, which seems to bear a lot of resemblance to the incident in this film. The only draw back for this film is that a little of the technology appears a little bit dated as the film was made in 1979, but this does really detract too much from this excellent film.
For pure tension and sheer drama then look no further than The China Syndrome, which is in my opinion Jane Fonda's best film. Fonda and Michael Douglas are a newsteam who accidentally film an accident at a nuclear plant that could have killed the whole state. They battle to reveal this to the nation before any damage is done but certain people are hell bent on stoping them. Fine performances, particularly by Jack Lemmon, and great direction by James Bridges ensure this to be a classic movie. Film is so tense it has no music score!