Movie Reviews

Movie Review: The China Syndrome – Yes, Let’s Build More “Nucular” Power Plants Part II

Written by Mike Gray, T.S. Cook, and James Bridges
Directed by James Bridges

I’ve heard people lately – mainly those lobbying for us to start building atomic energy plants again – stating that Three Mile Island was proof that all of the safeguards at the plants worked. I say they were damn lucky.

The China Syndrome was released in the U.S. just two weeks before this accident occurred. The title refers to what happens when the core is exposed and the fuel overheats, melting through the bottom of the plant. When it hits groundwater it releases radioactive steam and would render an area (the size of Pennsylvania – those words are used in all ironies) uninhabitable.

Jane Fonda is Kimberly Wells, a fluff-piece reporter at a local Los Angeles television station. She’s sent with her cameraman, Richard (Michael Douglas), out to cover the Ventana Nuclear Power Plant as part of a series about energy in California. While they are there, they experience what they at first believe to be an earthquake. Unbeknownst to anyone, Richard keeps his camera covertly rolling. They aren’t sure exactly what happened, but they both seem to know instinctively that it wasn’t good.

When they arrive back at the station, Kimberly is eager to roll with the story as the lead story, but it’s killed. Richard steals the footage and takes it to hearings being held on the opening of a second plant to get input from nuclear specialists.

Jack Lemmon is plant manager Jack Godell. I’ve come across three types of people in this world. There are people who just blindly believe that everything in the world will work out good (at least for them). There are people who believe in what they are told until they see different for themselves, and there are people who are just by nature suspicious of what’s presented to them. Jack Godell seems to fit into the second category. He completely believes in the use of nuclear power. That is, until something nags at him about the incident at the plant. He begins poking around and comes across some things that bother him – water leaking in an area that it shouldn’t; x-rays of welds that just show the same weld over and over again. The question is – why is he investigating this when others aren’t? The people he is clashing with are all the first type of people; they believe that nothing bad will happen despite the fact that there have been shortcuts taken with the building of the plant that they’ve known about for years. You would think that these people who have to live in the same area where this plant is and are exposed to the same level of danger would want to make sure that they and their families are as safe as can be, but they seem to live in the fantasy world where bad things can never happen to them; where things just can’t go wrong on the grand scale that those of us who live in the real world know they can.

The story is terrific as it builds to the climax. What was strange was just how similar to the events of Three Mile Island this film was. No, there were no faulty welds at Three Mile Island, but the accident there was similar to what is depicted in The China Syndrome. If that wasn’t enough alone to catapult this film to the notoriety it received, the performances themselves are really terrific. It’s tightly written at a good pace without dumbing itself down to the audience.

I grew to like the character of Jack Godell quite a bit. Jack Lemmon did a terrific job with him. He’s not got the hysterics of someone who’s against nuclear power as he believes in the job he’s doing. However, at the same time he has a conscience and is willing to call out those he thinks are putting the public at risk. Lemmon portrays Godell as intensely conflicted and does it well. I thought his performance was probably the best of the film. He really brought out the human qualities in him without overplaying who he is.

The story that got lost in all of the fracas surrounding this once Three Mile Island broke is the story of what it was like to be a female reporter at that time in this country, and it really wasn’t all that long ago. As Kimberly Wells, Jane Fonda is given mostly “fluff pieces” about singing telegrams, and a tiger having a birthday party. Her bosses comment on her hairstyle and tell her “not to worry her pretty little head” about such matters.

Fonda does a terrific job as Wells. She’s been hired based on how she tested with the audience. She’s even called a “performer” at one point. What she wants to do is hardcore reporting. What she’s assigned is something entirely different. She’s hungry for more than she’s been given while trying to tread the line of being a woman in what is mostly a man’s world. If she gets too forceful, she’ll end up on the street, while at the same time if she stays too meek and nice she’s going to be relegated to the same “human interest” stories she’s currently being assigned. A casual exchange between her and her co-anchor demonstrates this when he tosses a casual insult at her and she tosses it right back at him. It was all right for him to insult her and denigrate her as just a pretty face, but he takes umbrage at her shot back at him as being a threat to his credibility.

Michael Douglas does a fair job as Richard, but I got the feeling that he was pushing for a big story that will get him the limelight, no matter whether it’s something being blown out of proportion or not. That’s the whole point – what they witnessed is the system working and there was no story there. The depth is in what Godell knows about the x-rays being falsified. When Richard and Kimberly uncover that, they have their story, but both of them are so hungry to prove themselves they are willing to make mountains out of molehills.

Trivia : When Jack Godell is trying to lose his tail, he follows a fire engine. It’s “Engine 51” from the old Emergency! television series.

The truth is The China Syndrome wasn’t a blanket indictment of the use of nuclear power. It was a blanket indictment of human failures as the reason we aren’t mature enough as a species to be using this power. We are too powered by our natural greed and selfishness to put safety first and foremost – no matter what the cost. We don’t ask questions, naively believing that everyone will do everything on the up and up and not take shortcuts which will save them money when public safety is involved.

6 replies »

  1. Exactly, Patti: very damned lucky! I remember 3 Mile Island, even though I was a kid at the time. And then Chernobyl happened. But when I lived in France, everyone insisted that “the cloud stopped at the border,” as if it was not a joke! And no one seems to care anymore about Fukushima.

      • Thank you so much! Yes, there were many people angry at this movie because they thought it painted the nuclear industry unfairly. There were even people who minimized Three Mile Island. Then Chernobyl happened….

        It’s not that nuclear energy can’t be done safely, it’s the people involved who put profit over safety and try to cover their ass that scare me.

      • People were angry at this movie? If it is the truth, and sufficient steps were not taken to strengthen safety for all of us, then how could they feel justified in a picture of an industry that is accurate? Interesting. And minimizing 3 Mile Island? I remember the birth defect reports…
        Yes, nuclear could be safe, but there are so many options that are both safer and even more effective now, that do not have unfortunate side effects in lots of areas. Just the waste disposal system is a problem, even with the so-called closed systems that the French are so proud of. It is very scary, because you are quite right: there is too much money involved for safety to be prioritized.

  2. I remember Three Mile Island quite well. I was living in Philadelphia at the time, about 100 miles away, IIRC. Then came Chernobyl, which was brought about by just a cluster oops of human errors. Years later, I heard stories about family and friends in Germany having soil removed from yards because of contamination. With Fukushima, it wasn’t a matter of human error. I think no one had imagined a disaster on such a scale.

    On the one hand, it’s good for movies to bring attention to these issues. On the other, I don’t think I could watch this.