The China Syndrome

by Glenn Erickson Jun 23, 2018

All but inventing the ‘new liberal exposé’ suspense format, James Bridges’ smart and effective thriller began as a star showcase with a political message. Its fictional nuclear accident hit screens just before a similar real nuclear accident happened in real life, at Three Mile Island. Historical synchronicity? Box office serendipity? One thing is certain — the show strongly affected the way we view the ‘miracle’ of nuclear-generated power.


The China Syndrome
Powerhouse Indicator (UK)
1979 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 122 min. / Street Date June 18, 2017 / Available from Amazon UK £14.99
Starring: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas, James Hampton, Peter Donat, Wilford Brimley, Richard Herd, Daniel Valdez, Stan Bohrman, James Karen, Michael Alaimo, Donald Hotton.
Cinematography: James Crabe
Film Editor: David Rawlins
Production Design: George Jenkins
Written by James Bridges, Mike Gray and T.S. Cook
Produced by Michael Douglas
Directed by
James Bridges


In 1979 Saturday Night Live was the hottest ticket on television; we were all waiting for the second Star Wars film. Meanwhile, the Hollywood wunderkind Michael Douglas had teamed up with the top-rank actress Jane Fonda, following up on their respective counterculture-chic accomplishments One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Coming Home with a bombshell aimed directly at the mostly unassailable atomic energy industry. For thirty years the government had been bombarding us with propaganda about safe nukes. Serious nuclear power stations were finally beginning to proliferate — we heard a lot about the relatively cheap power to be produced, and quite a bit less about the lack of a plan for disposing of great quantities of radioactive spent fuel. Was the AEC being given a bad rap, or were they recklessly risking poisoning the ecosystem?

Ace screenwriter James Bridges gave us Colossus: The Forbin Project (which this picture somewhat resembles) and as a writer-director made news with The Paper Chase. Both are exceptionally intelligent and insightful. His The China Syndrome taps into the then-waning subgenre of the paranoid thriller (3 Days of the Condor, The Parallax View) as well as the new post-Watergate genre that made investigative reporters into culture heroes, the saviors of liberal freedom (All the President’s Men). Jane Fonda’s presence gave conservatives and hawks conniption fits, but in the ‘seventies carrying the nickname ‘Hanoi Jane’ wasn’t a movie deal-killer.


The China Syndrome initiated a standard conspiracy thriller template that hasn’t gone away. Intrepid media intellectuals stumble onto a corporate cover-up, and find out what every idealist-investigator has learned since the subgenre began: entrenched big-money industries have placed profit ahead of human lives. If pressed, they will kill to cover up their sins. Everybody seems to use this paranoid scenario now, no matter what the nature of the big secret — one extreme blames a Military-Industrial Complex, and the other a sinister Deep State.

Bridges pulls us in with engaging personalities. TV reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) does fluffy human interest pieces for a Los Angeles station and feels frustrated that her bosses Mac Churchill & Don Jacovich (James Karen & Peter Donat) won’t let her take on hard news stories. While in the control room of a new reactor for a happy-talk series on nuclear power, Kim and her freelance cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) witness what appears to be a serious accident. Project engineer Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) fumbles some procedural details during a crisis that follows an earthquake tremor, mis-reading water levels and almost exposing the core. The reporters are assured that nothing dangerous occurred. Jack is relieved that a review exonerates the engineering section; the big utility execs want the reactor back online as soon as possible.


Neither Kim nor Richard really know what happened, and only become alarmed when Jacovich becomes defensive: the TV station refuses to show the film that Richard has surreptitiously shot. Kim suspects that the reason is not legal liability, but collusion between the station and the power utility. Not being a team player, Richard swipes the film and shows it to some anti-nuke activists, who interpret the incident as a potentially serious melt-down. ‘The China Syndrome’ is a theorized disaster scenario in which an uncooled nuclear core melts through its housing and sinks into the earth, poisoning the ecosystem when it hits the water table.

Jack reviews the inspection reports for the crucial pumps that serve as a safety system for the reactor. He challenges the contractors over some bad welds, and discovers that the inspections were falsified, and that the reactor is fundamentally unsafe. Since his superiors ignore him, Jack decides that the only thing to do is to go public with what he knows. He prepares to slip the inspection evidence to Kim.

Kim is herself being pressured to drop the whole subject. She, Jack and Richard are shocked to discover that the executives in charge of the power plant will resort to violence to keep the reactor online, without public scrutiny.

When The China Syndrome was in production, its doomsday scenario existed mainly as warnings from nuclear dissidents, the kind that couldn’t get themselves heard in the media. And indeed it sounds like a crackpot fantasy, like Crack in the World. From science fiction comes the Colossus- like futuristic hardware, from President’s Men comes the idealistic reporter, and from the paranoid action pictures we get corporate skullduggery, car chases and a frantic martyr to the system. 1979 is fairly early in the annals of ‘film crews as media adventurers’ pictures, and much of the tension revolves around stolen film footage that will uncover the company’s deceit. The men behind the accident are nicely differentiated. The plant’s PR flack parrots whatever lies the utility tells him to, while plant supervisor De Young (genre reliable Scott Brady) is just a good soldier who blindly assumes that all is okay, and sees Jack’s nervousness as unprofessional behavior. Again, the film can be commended simply for not putting a single villainous ‘Mister Burns’ executive in charge of the nuclear power plant. The sinister CEO watches from above. Like Herbert Lom’s mobster overlord in Night and the City, he keeps his hands clean by hiring his killings. What did the utility CEO do, dial the Military Industrial Complex’s equivalent of ‘Murder, Inc.?’

But the other plant engineers know nothing of this. Jack’s co-worker buddy Ted Spindler (Wilford Brimley) is a caring individual who also wants to to the right thing. Yet he’s well aware that a cog like himself is not going to be taken seriously in the corporate hierarchy, even if he’s one of the few engineers capable of seeing the devil in the technical details. Wilford Brimley would go forward to be a favorite actor of the 1980s, usually playing a down-to-Earth midwesterner, and always with his signature moustache.


Back at the TV station, Kim’s boss is apparently a total sell-out. But we aren’t shown that connection, which dampens and angle that Douglas and Fonda wanted to stress. They mention a too-cozy relationship between industry and the media: stories that might expose industrial negligence are downplayed because they might hurt the economy and cost jobs. Jane Fonda’s frustrated newswoman Kim is exceptional in that the star actress doesn’t play her as a superwoman. Just like the utility executives, Kim’s main motivation is selfish careerism. In the final showdown she’s little more than a fly on the wall. Michael Douglas’s cameraman is the kind of political loose cannon that wouldn’t be let near ‘sensitive’ projects today; since 1980 security clearances would likely prohibit anyone with activist connections from getting on the property.

The hired killer angle aside, it’s possible to see what happens in the story as the kind of Peter Principle or Dilbert screw-up that occurs naturally in any chain of command. Cluster-failures occur, and cutting corners accelerates them. In real life, performance pressure and team loyalty keep employees from reporting ‘unpopular’ bad news, which sometimes results in tragedy. Of course, the film jumps into Total Conspiracy mode as soon as black-ops killers are arranging ‘mysterious accidents.’ The accident that befell power industry dissenter Karen Silkwood partly justifies this; a movie based on her story ends with a question mark yet couldn’t be more clear in its accusations. As profit and business politics are always placed above human lives in conspiracy movies, they’re often interpreted as ‘hate America’ pictures.


Jack Lemmon’s ethical whistleblower is in serious need of crisis counseling. He’s exactly like the unfortunate engineers that were told to keep quiet when 0-ring seals for the space shuttle looked unsafe, or the engineers that presumably could not prevent oil company execs from despoiling half of the Gulf of Mexico. The right thing to do is to document everything, get it into a safe deposit box and to inform as many influential, sympathetic people as possible, not just one TV newslady. (spoiler) Jack instead pulls a gun. That unfortunately makes China Syndrome into just one more hostage standoff, the kind of situation seen twenty times a week on TV. The gun brings in the cops, makes the film’s conclusion inevitable, and insures that Jack’s credibility falls to zero.

Jack’s ‘Enemy of the People’ situation is comparable to that of James Stewart’s engineer Theodore Honey in Nevil Shute’s terrific aviation whistleblower drama No Highway in the Sky. Convinced that an airplane it is unsafe, Honey sabotages it rather than allow its passengers to be killed. He doesn’t mind being branded a terrorist, as he believes that his scientific analysis is correct. If Jack Godell really believes that a nuclear accident is inevitable, and nobody is listening to him, he’d be perfectly right to sabotage the plant first, and deal with the personal consequences later.

James Bridges’ show has suspense, vivid characters and snappy action, all of which work well. Just as in his Colossus: The Forbin Project, Bridges’ script makes understandable a great volume of technical information. This never becomes the boring kind of film where men become agitated looking at computer readouts. The fairly credible conclusion does not become a “Z”- like horror story where all the witnesses die mysterious deaths in short order. The visual motif of starting and ending the film in video noise and color bars is a fairly fresh touch for 1979 — I previously only remember something similar in Network. To me it suggests the idea that ‘the media controls what we think.’


Does The China Syndrome convince us that nuclear power is too risky?  Removing such crucial, potentially suicidal industries from the potential corruption of the profit motive sounds like a good idea, but the issue is not that simple. Safe nuclear power requires zero-percent screw-ups, and no endeavor involving human beings is that reliable.

As pointed out in the film’s extras, a different read of the movie is possible, one that assigns more culpability to Jack Lemmon’s Jack Godell.  Jack barely stops the first near-disaster, which became serious partly because he didn’t follow good emergency procedure. (spoiler) At the climax, the plant’s equipment automatically averts the second disaster that Jack so feared, even after the giant pump he said would fail, fails. If Jack had just ‘let it happen,’ the plant would have shut down on its own. The utility would be forced to fix things properly and maybe institute more safety rules. Since the problem would prove to be exactly what Jack said it was, he might be called a hero, and be given a raise and more authority.

Then again, even though the film downplays the nuclear doom angle, the subsequent disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl fully justify clanging a warning bell with The China Syndrome. Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda and James Bridges must have felt good when real events suddenly made their risky radical ‘issue’ movie super-topical: history vindicated their position almost immediately.


Powerhouse Indicator’s Blu-ray of The China Syndrome is a great encoding of a film I’ve somehow avoided for forty years. Picture and sound quality are excellent; as pointed out in the extras the soundtrack is particularly interesting — no music score was used, increasing the film’s impact.

This is a UK product, but the film is encoded for both Region A and B. It comes with original mono audio, or a remixed 5.1 surround sound track.

Indicator’s extras are up to the expected level for a title that garnered award attention and that remains a source of pride for its makers. The older featurettes are well done and the new items just as thoughtful. One of the interviewees in the main making-of show is James Bridges’ life partner Jack Larson, who formerly played Jimmy Olsen on TV’s Superman. I particularly liked the lecture piece with Professor Tony Shaw, an ‘international historian specializing in propaganda and film.’ Shaw sees this as a Cold War movie, as the success of the nuclear industry was consistently linked with America’s security interests.

I was impressed by the film’s special effects, which are mostly limited to a few matte paintings by the great Matthew Yuricich. Some of the fancy models of the plant interior are actually miniatures. I briefly visited the full-scale China Syndrome power station set when it was under construction on what had been the Columbia lot on North Gower Street. The effects man in charge of making all those console lights appear to function was Peter Anderson, a specialist I met on Close Encounters who could do almost anything. Peter was an accomplished photographer and artist. He worked as an effects cameraman but we were impressed by his very good main title sequence for the earlier horror film Race with the Devil. He later became a busy visual effects supervisor.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The China Syndrome
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: A Fusion of Talent (1999, 28 mins): making-of doc featuring interviews with cast and crew, including Jane Fonda, actor-producer Michael Douglas, executive producer Bruce Gilbert, and actor Jack Larson; Creating a Controversy (1999, 30 mins): featurette about the controversy surrounding the film and the real-life events which occurred just after its release; Deleted scenes, Theatrical Trailer, Image gallery: Limited edition illustrated booklet with a new essay by Neil Sinyard, an overview of contemporary critical responses and historic articles on the film.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: June 21, 2018

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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