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What To Watch: It All Feels Real In The ‘China Syndrome’ (1979)

The China Syndrome is a 1979 thriller about a reporter who finds what appears to be a cover-up of safety hazards at a nuclear power plant.

The China Syndrome would not get made today. That’s a fact, and it has nothing to do with politics or fears of nuclear energy. It’s about Hollywood. Modern blockbuster cinema is a product of carefully constructed themes and dialogue, music and effects meant to appeal to huge international audiences, ones that have for decade been slowly trained to respond to these stimuli and believe it the only way in which to consume movies. Many current movie-goers simply don’t have the patience for some of the truly great films of the industry because they are well outside the ‘norms’ of modern filmmaking.

Such is the case with James Bridges‘ epic The China Syndrome, a masterpiece of the genre and the era, a film bold in its production and execution, that, for those who let it, offers incredible rewards. Without a note of music and a commitment to the premise it establishes right from frame one, the film is a bracing cinematic experience, with terrific performances and an even better story. Let’s take a look.

The China Syndrome
The China Syndrome, 1979 © Columbia Pictures

THE STORY: TV news reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), along with her cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) and their soundman Hector Salas (Daniel Valdez), are invited to the (fictional) Ventura nuclear power plant just outside Los Angeles. All seems normal as they are given a fluff tour of the facility in hopes of demonstrating the energy capabilities and safety features while assuring the public this is the future. However, when in full view of the control room, the crew witness the plant go through an emergency shutdown (SCRAM), causing the plant facility team to react with great stress then celebration when it appears to have succeeded. Throughout the short incident, Adams secretly films the event, but is told by the station manager that the footage can’t be showed, angering Adams, who takes it to experts. They claim the plant was dangerously close to an event called a China syndrome, in which a nuclear core melts into the Earth’s core and heavily contaminates the groundwater. He and Wells decide to investigate. Meanwhile, back at Ventura, Shift Supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) notices things aren’t right, and after getting turned away as he requests the plant’s operation be suspended for safety checks, takes matters into his own hands.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: There’s a rich, organic feel to The China Syndrome, one that feels like a news documentary and really helps to give the film terrific authenticity. The lack of a score is further immersive and while most films use music to help establish tone or create an emotional connection, the absence of it greatly induces a palpable sense of reality, as if what we are watching is really happening. It’s gripping stuff.

The China Syndrome
The China Syndrome, 1979 © Columbia Pictures

That’s all the more so due to the outstanding performances. Fonda and Douglas are a great team and are naturally very convincing as their characters struggle to find the truth about what they saw and the implications of what it means. However, it’s Lemmon who steals the show in a turn that is nothing short of remarkable. This is one of cinema’s greatest talents at the very top of his game delivering such a nuanced, personal performance, it’s impossible not to be affected by what he does as Godell’s falls into his own little hell. When you watch this, you’ll know what I mean.

Aside from all that, some of the best parts of The China Syndrome is how real the whole thing feels. Notice the control room at Ventura when you watch. It’s a legitimately authentic looking control room with walls of dials and gauges, knobs and monitors in a sterile white room. In other words, bland as hell. And yet, not at all because what the movie does with this room is what makes it so effective. In a modern movie, this room would be darkly-lit and filled with flashing neon lights and lens flares, awash in ultra-tech mumbo jumbo with all sorts of people buzzing about, distracting us with style rather than function. The China Syndrome is not a sci-fi adventure and its the attention to details like this room that make it so immersive.

A GREAT MOMENT: Despite the premise, this is a film far more about the people than the events. A sharply-written exposé of sorts, Bridges rightly keeps the drama about the characters rather than the action, something far too many movies these days tend to do oppositely. A absolutely perfect example of this is the aforementioned SCRAM moment at the start of the film, set in that fantastic control room.

The China Syndrome
The China Syndrome, 1979 © Columbia Pictures

In the scene, Wells, Adams, and Salas are in an elevated position with a facility manager given them a tour. They are looking through sealed glass down into the secured control room where Godell and his crew are monitoring the system. A routine turbine trip sets of an alarm and Godell begins to delivers habitual orders, but notices that the coffee in his mug is trembling (a nice effect done 14 years before Steven Spielberg‘s Jurassic Park). This raises concerns, as do a series of other plant failures that trigger further alarms.

Watch how good Lemmon is here, commanding this moment with leadership and authority. We trust him, we get behind him, and when he says to relax, we do, and yet when we see maybe we shouldn’t, we tense. Bridges also keeps his camera and editing sharp, shifting perspectives from Godell up to Wells and Adams, heightening the sense that what is happening is very bad and that paying attention is important if we’re going to follow everything that comes next. It’s a highly dramatic moment, one that immediately sets the pace for the rest of the film. Now consider that it’s all done without once leaving the control room. There’s no sweeping CGI-enhanced zoom shot of some bursting pipes or otherwise in the chambers below the characters, no people running around in chaos leaping from catwalks, just actors in a room, and yet, it’s almost unbearably stressful to watch. This is great storytelling.

THE TALLY: The China Syndrome is a rare gem, a film of uncommon style and superb acting. While its themes and issues are still prevalent (in a twist of irony, the Three Mile Island disaster occurred only a few weeks after the film’s release), the best reason to watch is the actors and direction themselves. While it lacks the polish of modern movies, that in itself makes it all the more genuine-feeling, making this a great night at the movies. It’s what to watch.

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