The China Syndrome has a particular significance for me. I first saw it in New York in 1979 just as, stateside, there was considerable panic about a nuclear meltdown at the Three Mile Island power station in Pennsylvania. This won’t mean much unless you know that the film is about a potential nuclear meltdown at a power station near Los Angeles.I mean, wow! Was this art imitating life or, more ominously, vice versa? The link between movie and real life is strongly pointed up when someone in the film says that, worst case scenario, possible events at the LA station could render “an area the size of Pennsylvania” permanently uninhabitable. Given the circumstances this was a scary film to see, and it’s scary enough without Three Mile Island, being a tense thriller that, among other things, looks at how power can corrupt and wonders just how safe nuclear reactors really are. Jane Fonda plays a TV reporter who, with her cameraman Michael Douglas, is doing a story on the LA plant just when a small earthquake results in more than usual vibrations and there’s an emergency shutdown. Only the plant’s shift supervisor, Jack Lemmon, seems to feel that this is rather more than a minor setback. Douglas surreptitiously films the incident but there’s a cover-up and Fonda’s boss refuses to use her story. So Douglas nicks the film and shows it to experts who agree that the plant had come close to “the China Syndrome”, meaning that the core could have melted the earth and possibly gone all the way to China. Now events follow thick and fast. The increasingly worried Lemmon finds a radioactive puddle that leaked from a pump. He also discovers that documents have been dangerously falsified and comes to believe the plant is unsafe. But his bosses refuse to listen and tell him to shut up. He disobeys them, even though thugs are now lurking outside his house to encourage him to do as he’s told. Meanwhile, Fonda is also defying her boss, and she and Douglas get together with Lemmon in an attempt to find the truth. This, directed by James Bridges, is a very well made, very well acted movie in which the tension, including a car being run off the road and a SWAT team called in, builds up to a dramatic and somewhat unexpected climax. The concern about nuclear reactors is fascinating in itself and still topical today but it’s the performances that make this a much better than average thriller. Lemmon is particularly good but all three stars are on fine form with the result that, never mind the technology and the questions about nuclear power, this ends up as a very human story.
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