Saturday, 23 April 2011

Movie Review: The China Syndrome (1979)


Released 12 days before the nuclear power reactor incident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania, The China Syndrome is fiction anticipating fact with chilling accuracy. It is also a well-made and thoughtful thriller, with tight pacing and excellent performances.

Reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) and cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) are part of a local Los Angeles television crew compiling a documentary series on energy sources. While filming an informational segment at the Ventana Nuclear Power Plant, they inadvertently witness what looks like a serious incident: after an unexplained shudder, the control room staff, including shift supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) and co-worker Ted Spindler (Wilford Brimley) are thrown into no small amount of panic as they deal with faulty valves and stuck gauges, narrowly averting a meltdown.

With another proposed nuclear power plant undergoing high-profile approval hearings, there is a rush to whitewash the incident and bring Ventana back on line. However, Godell is concerned enough to delve into the Ventana safety management procedures and uncovers falsified record keeping. Convinced that the plant will be unsafe if it is restarted, he agrees to share his findings with Wells. But Godell's life is soon in danger, as greater corporate forces move in to silence his whistle-blowing, culminating in a final confrontation between information and cover-up in the Ventana control room.

The China Syndrome sparkles with the understated cleverness of reality. Director James Bridges (who also co-wrote the script) eschews the  use of soundtrack music and never allows any of his characters to take on larger than life heroic proportions. Wells does not hide her vanity and acknowledges that although she is interested in serious stories, career climbing is just as important. Adams is a short-tempered and foul-mouthed idealist, destined to remain on the margins of influence. Even Godell, who could have been the most heroic of characters, falls apart at his critical moment.

The colourful details of life in a television newsroom are a delight, and the film avoids allowing the unfolding story to detract from the eccentricities of daily living, Wells struggling with her pet turtle as she answers the phone being typical of the depth that the film pursues to the end.

Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas (who also produced the movie) provide a large dose of star power, and all three deliver controlled performances, staying within themselves and avoiding diva moments. The performances are key to enliven and maintain interest in what is mostly a talkfest: the brilliance of The China Syndrome lies in uncovering the threat of something horrible potentially happening at the nuclear plant -- nothing drastically wrong ever actually does happen, but lives are nevertheless lost in the battle between revealing and hiding information.

And while the nuclear angle rightfully gets all the attention, The China Syndrome not only predicted the age of nuclear power nightmares, it more tellingly foretold the era of the media cozying up ever closer to corporate interests and forgoing hard stories for soft puff pieces.

The China Syndrome is a richly successful example of one of the most difficult challenges that fictional movies can undertake: provocative investigations of potentially dangerous trends packaged in captivating entertainment.






All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.



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