Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Favorite Films: "The China Syndrome"


The China Syndrome was made by people steadfastly opposed to nuclear energy, and might have come and gone from theaters back in 1979 as nothing more than a liberal fever dream if, 12 days after it opened, the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history hadn't taken place.

The movie began playing on March 16, 1979, and late in the afternoon of March 28, the radioactive core of the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island began its unprecedented melt down.

During The China Syndrome, a character explains that if the core of a nuclear power plant were to experience a total meltdown, the radioactive material would burn through its containment structure, not to mention the earth below it, theoretically not stopping until it got all the way to China.  (You know, the way kids used to think that if you never stopped digging a hole, China's where you'd end up.)  An accident like that, the academic protestor in the movie says, "could render the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable."

Oh, by the way, the Three Mile Island plant was in Pennsylvania.

Suddenly, everyone in the country wanted to know what it was that almost killed them, and their curiosity drove them to The China Syndrome in droves.  Maybe they were expecting an angry activism-style film, or a dry and dull lecture about the dangers of nuclear power.  Very likely, though, they weren't expecting the smart, tense, ludicrously entertaining thriller they got.

The China Syndrome meshes the cinema-verit√©-influenced work of 1970s realist auteurs and blends its no-nonsense approach with the style and polish of a studio film, resulting in a movie that feels both stylish and real.  It's urgent and serious, but never forgets its greater mission to be a hell of a good movie.

It's anchored by two stars who were at the pinnacle of their popularity and ability, Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon.  At 42 and 54, respectively, they're practically senior citizens from the perspective of today's youth-obsessed Hollywood, but The China Syndrome shows the power of (relative) maturity: They're both alarmingly good in their roles, joined by comparative youngster Michael Douglas, then coming into his own as a movie star after starring in the TV cop drama "The Streets of San Francisco."

Fonda plays Kimberly Wells, a Los Angeles TV reporter who's sick of the lightweight human-interest stories she's relegated to covering.  She jumps at the chance to do a piece about the newly opened (and fictional) Ventana nuclear power plant.  It's a puff piece, but at least lets her talk about a hot-button subject.  During the visit, something happens.  Kimberly's cameraman (Douglas) captures the frantic actions of the control room on film -- including the anguish and relief of the plant manager, Jack Godell (Lemmon).

The news crew races back to the station, insisting that they have a bombshell news story -- but they don't know what it is.  The power plant's PR guy insists it wasn't an accident, just an "unexpected transient," and that the news crew didn't understand what they were seeing, and despite the alarms and warning lights, nothing actually happened.

But Kimberly and Richard, the camera guy, aren't so sure.  They take the film to a nuclear expert.  He tells them that what they experienced bordered on catastrophic -- that not just L.A. but all of California was put at risk.  Kimberly becomes determined to uncover the real story.  She tracks down Jack Godell, who finally agrees to tell her what he knows.  Not surprisingly, none of this makes the power company very happy.

The China Syndrome deftly weaves a classic story of an amateur sleuth with political commentary -- but it's the expertly handled suspense that makes the movie a standout, even 36 years after its release.  The exterior trappings may seem anchored in the 1970s, but they're easy limitations to get beyond.  As the story ramps up, so does the tension, leading to a remarkable climax inside the control room, as Kimberly and Jack Godell, who has barricaded himself inside, prepare to go live on the air to warn the public of exactly what's happening at Ventana -- while an invading police SWAT team tries to get in.

Director James Bridges, who would go on to Urban Cowboy the following year but never quite hit the highs of The China Syndrome, wrote the screenplay with Mike Gray and T.S. Cook, and among the film's many remarkable accomplishments is the absence of a musical score.  It doesn't need the addition of external cues to tell its viewers what to feel or how to react -- it's intense enough as it is.

Nearly four decades later, the movie has lost little of its ability to enthrall.  Meanwhile, nuclear power never did quite gain the traction its proponents had envisioned.  Three Mile Island certainly didn't help their cause.  Neither did The China Syndrome.  

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