The China Syndrome (1979) James Bridges

On days when things are a bit busy around here, I’m going to add some previously posted reviews. This rewatch review of The China Syndrome was originally posted in 2004 on another blog. I hope to rewatch the film again soon; it’s been far too long.


The China Syndrome (1979)
Columbia Pictures
Directed by James Bridges
Produced by Michael Douglas, James M. Falkinburg, Bruce Gilbert, Penny McCarthy, Jack Smith, Jr.
Written by Mike Gray, T.S. Cook, James Bridges
Cinematography by James Crabe
Edited by David Rawlins

“She’ll do anything we tell her to do.” That’s one of the first lines of The China Syndrome, the film that literally shook the world in 1979. The line is delivered by decision-making men in a television news control room while watching Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), a redheaded LA news reporter. Kimberly covers mostly fluff human interest stories, but she really wants a chance to report hard news, even though she seems to sense the big stories are probably beyond her. Her boss (Peter Donat) even admits to her that she wasn’t hired for her intellectual capabilities.


On a routine assignment to a nuclear power plant, Kimberly and her cameraman Richard (Michael Douglas, left) witness an accident, only the plant officials aren’t calling it an accident, downplaying the event as a “technical glitch.” One of the senior workers at the plant Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) suspects that the “glitch” belies a deeper, more serious problem. Much more serious.

The China Syndrome was remembered for years primary as a historic film landmark. The movie’s warning to reconsider nuclear power and its potential dangers turned strangely prophetic: only twelve days after The China Syndrome‘s release, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania suffered an accident mirrored by the one in the film, sending people to movie theatres in droves. I’m not suggesting that the film helped make any inroads into changing policies; it probably didn’t. But it did – at least for awhile – make people think.


Yet The China Syndrome shouldn’t be relegated to just an interesting footnote in film history. The film received four Oscar nominations, a fact largely forgotten today. It’s interesting that Jane Fonda would choose to play a character whom at the beginning of the film is little more than a pretty face and by the end of the film has to face some harsh realities. She doesn’t overplay; her performance is restrained and believable. With the red hair and the close-ups that she’s maybe not the sexpot of the 60’s anymore, she’s vulnerable. People who wouldn’t walk across the street (or the protest line, as the case may have been) to see a Fonda picture just a few years earlier eagerly watched The China Syndrome. And some of them even decided that Jane was a pretty good actor.


Jack Lemmon never gave a bad performance, never. I know I’m biased; I’m a huge Lemmon fan, but the man elevated every film he touched. Just watch Lemmon’s body language throughout the film. Godell goes from a professional at his job to a man caught in a series of frustrations he can’t control to a man who literally has nowhere to turn. No one could match Lemmon in non-verbal (and often verbal) communication.

The film does have weaknesses. The pacing slows in the middle and although the screenplay does not assume the audience is ignorant, sometimes too much is explained. (Maybe we needed a little more explained in 1979 – nuclear power was something millions of people really didn’t understand. Probably still don’t.)

A couple of the supporting roles are played by actors who worked mostly in television and those roles stand out as either wooden or overplayed. The gap between TV actors and the three stars is widened even further by the performances of Fonda, Lemmon and Douglas.

Last week I saw another “Forgotten Film from the 70’s,” Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, which for years was largely forgotten in the light of The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now, yet now is making something of a resurgence. The 70s (My favorite film decade after the 40s) produced so many films covering such a broad range of genres it’s easy to overlook the good (and sometimes great) ones that fell through the cracks. The China Syndrome is a solid film with excellent performances. If you haven’t seen it, I hope you will.


(Photos: Movie Poster ShopRoger EbertQuetzal AttackListal)

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