For viewers of a certain age, the title The China Syndrome recalls one of the eeriest synchronicities in the history of movie distribution. Starring and produced by Michael Douglas, this terrific thriller revolves around a whistleblower taking control of a nuclear power plant—as a TV reporter and her cameraman record the unfolding crisis, the whistleblower grabs a gun and forces a hostage situation in order to put national attention on safety problems at the facility. Intense, smart, and topical, The China Syndrome would have been a provocative picture in any circumstances, but an extraordinary coincidence made the movie seem downright prescient. Twelve days after the picture opened, a real-life accident occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, accentuating the film’s theme about the potentially catastrophic risks of nuclear energy.
Directed and co-written by serious-minded humanist James Bridges, The China Syndrome works equally well as a dramatic film and as a suspense piece. As the story progresses, hard-driving reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) and her idealistic cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) shift guises several times: They start out as observers, become opportunistic voyeurs, and finally transform into activists once they’re terrified by the prospect of a “China Syndrome,” a nuclear meltdown so severe that a plant’s core burrows through the entire globe. (Science tells us this eventuality is impossible, but the notion is nonetheless a sexy scare tactic.)
The emotional heart of the movie, of course, is Jack Lemmon’s impassioned performance as the whistleblower, Jack Godell. A normal man pushed past his limit by his employers’ reckless indifference, Jack represents the quiet voice of reason exploding into scared-shitless rage, thus reflecting the tenor of anti-nuclear activists in the era of the No Nukes benefit concerts. Bridges channels this disquieting historical moment through meticulous storytelling, creating a rational narrative framework that counterpoints the edgy behavior of the characters. Furthermore, the picture taps into the conspiracy-theory vibe that permeated many grown-up ’70s flicks, and Bridges orchestrates the work of veteran character actors—including Wilford Brimley, James Hampton, Richard Herd, and James Karen—who balance the stars’ more flamboyant work. Best of all, The China Syndrome is an expertly mounted slow burn with a dynamic payoff, since the tension Bridges generates during the climax is quite potent.
The China Syndrome: RIGHT ON