Anthony's Film Review

The China Syndrome (1979)

Works well as both a journalistic drama and a suspense thriller...

The China Syndrome, which centers on the dangers of nuclear power plants, is a timely film in a rather interesting way. It's not something that followed similar real-life events, as many films are. Rather, it predates them, essentially predicting what was to come. The movie was released on March 16, 1979, twelve days before the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident. That is a rather freaky coincidence and one that is sure to fire up anti-nuclear activists. And let's not forget the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986.

Even if you have never been near Three Mile Island or Chernobyl, The China Syndrome does a good job of capturing the fear and drama of nuclear disasters. It presents an impending meltdown at the fictional Ventana Nuclear Power Plant outside Los Angeles. Jane Fonda is television reporter Kimberly Wells, who, along with Michael Douglas as cameraman Richard Adams, visits the plant to do a story on nuclear power. During a tour, however, Kimberly and Richard witness a control room as its panel lights are going on and off and its staff, including Jack Lemmon as Jack Godell, are moving about quickly. Even though the window to the control room is soundproof, Richard secretly films the commotion.

With an unexpected development like this, you can pretty much guess what happens immediately after. Kimberly and Richard want to present this nuclear accident as the top story, but journalism ethics get in the way. The footage was obtained without permission and the nature of the events in the control room is not confirmed. But Kimberly and Richard aren't giving up. And while this is happening, Jack at the power plant, who initially denied any major accident, has a change of heart and decides to expose the plant as being unsafe. However, certain individuals have a strong financial interest in the plant and are willing to stop anyone who might destroy it.

The first half of the movie feels like a drama showing the routines of television journalism, sort of like the newspaper reporting in All the President's Men. Later, it gradually becomes a suspense thriller where efforts to expose the power plant could be thwarted, sometimes with extreme measures. What I liked was how I thought it would be predictable, but it wasn't. The last fifteen minutes are quite intense, because you really don't know which side will win and whether the power plant will finally explode.

The last thing I'll mention are the performances. Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, and Jack Lemmon all do a good job. Of these three, however, I think Lemmon is the best. With true emotion, he plays a character who is desperate to do the right thing, no matter how big the risks are. He certainly deserved an Academy Award nomination for this role. The movie earned three other Academy Award nominations, and although it won none of them, at least it's good enough to earn nominations. Take this as a sign that The China Syndrome is a movie many people might like. I know I did.

Anthony's Rating:

For more information about The China Syndrome, visit the Internet Movie Database.


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