RogerBW's Blog

The China Syndrome 05 June 2015

1979 drama, dir. James Bridges, Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon: IMDb / allmovie

A TV news reporter uncovers dirty secrets at a nuclear power plant.

The long shadow of All the President's Men (the film version was released three years earlier) is definitely lying over this film: heroic reporters who uncover The Truth don't need to be defined as such, they're simply part of the zeitgeist. That shadow defines the genre, too: this isn't a disaster film, which might have dealt with an actual meltdown and the consequences as various people caught in the radioactive release died in order of moral turpitude, but a film which assumes that investigation and cover-up are sufficient primary material for a story, and almost coincidentally sets it around a nuclear power plant. At the same time, it's quite specifically the news crew who are painted as the heroes: even their own editors are happy to suppress the story to support the status quo.

But in spite of the way the narrative tries to slant things, I end up feeling that the real hero of this story is not Jane Fonda's reporter who wants to get off local colour onto serious news (or her cameraman, played by Michael Douglas, who also produced); they would get nowhere without the real hero, Jack Godell, the shift supervisor played by Jack Lemmon. He's just trying to do his job and solve the problems at the plant. Unlike the reporters, he didn't sign on to save the world. But it looks as though that's what he's going to have to do.

It's the acting of the three principals that carries this film over the slow parts (it's around two hours long, and even for its era it sometimes feels padded). The action part of the plot, evil corporate bigwigs who are happy to kill whistleblowers, has become hackneyed over the years, though it was probably fresher in 1979; even so, when the film descends into action in the final sequence it feels as though it's falling back on convention rather than doing its own rather more interesting thing. Even then there are small good points, like the way the SWAT team members sent in to kill Godell take care to avoid the TV cameras.

The film's described as having an anti-nuclear bias, but I think that's more a result of the story than anything else: the crusading reporter needs a big evil organisation to go up against, and whatever ended up as the antagonist would have been painted as looking bad. It might have been Big Oil, or the military, or Big Fishing, just as easily. That said, the research isn't bad, and several of the incidents here are based on real events.

Apart from the instantly-forgettable title theme, there's no music in the film at all, and it's a good example of how mood can be effectively set without blatant emotional manipulation by the score.

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