Directed by James Bridges
Written by T.S. Cook, Mike Gray, and James Bridges
The China Syndrome brings us back to the "what is disaster cinema, anyway?" question, and raises the same problems of giving the whole game away on the basis of its categorization. It's not a disaster movie by tradition: widely regarded even by snobs as an actual good movie, it surely can't be "a disaster movie" if Roger Ebert gave it four stars, right? The thing is, it's true, it doesn't quite fit. (Like Rollercoaster, it might've been cooler if it did. Unlike Rollercoaster, by no means would it necessarily have been better if it did.) I'm pleased as punch that it entered my ambit for this retrospective anyway, because whatever it isn't, I love what it is, and that's one of the great 70s thrillers. Even by this standard, it's an intelligent and grown-up iteration of the trend, as overwhelmingly concerned with its message!—messages plural, really—as any message film that's ever been made, without ever once letting message! get in the way of its characters, its plot, or—extraordinarily—the terrifying might-as-well-call-it-fun of its apocalyptic speculation about a nuclear power plant that might fail so spectacularly that its meltdown could send its core falling into the liquefied rock beneath, through the Earth, and out to the other side.
That, of course, is where its aged-poorly title comes from—a title dropped twice in dialogue and explained once, and, no, that's not even close to how it would work (for one thing, the center of the Earth is already a molten fission reactor). Even the screenplay immediately admits that's not how meltdowns work, but plainly its authors—director James Bridges along with co-writers Mike Gray and T.S. Cook—were so taken with the Silver Age comic book whimsy of the phrase, invented in 1971 by nuclear physicist Ralph Lapp, that they couldn't resist. (Gray was, in fact, an engineer, and his contribution is definitely felt throughout in jargon-heavy dialogue that's usually understandable more through tone and volume than pandering explanation.) It was, despite it all, infamously prescient: just twelve days after after The China Syndrome's release an American reactor underwent a real-life loss-of-coolant test at Three Mile Island. It passed, sort of. It at least could have been worse—Chernobyl tested it with a Soviet design (perhaps the shittiest nuclear plant design ever operated), and did so rather less successfully—and while the event caused consternation at Columbia, who thought they could be accused of exploiting the accident*, it didn't stop The China Syndrome from being a huge success. It earned just a hair under $52 million on a $6 million budget—a hell of a take for an overt left-leaning advocacy film starring "Hanoi" Jane Fonda two years after Star Wars, which, in truth, turns out to be very nearly as concerned with sexism as it is with atomic safety. But as it's hard to say what precisely turned it into the surprise blockbuster it became, Three Mile Island or its own quality, we might as well agree it was both.
It maintains that quality pretty much the whole time, though it opens unusually well, with an abstracted, mechanistic screens-within-screens gimmick (the very first image, technically, is a test pattern that occupies the whole frame; this is the very last image, too). It turns out we're inside a control room at WXLA, who've just hired a pretty new reporter, Kimberly Wells (Fonda), to do the most bottom-of-the-barrel human interest fluff that clearly nobody else at the station wants to do. Right now, for example, she's covering an unlikely-to-succeed start-up that offers singing telegrams, and "operagrams," and, if you can afford it, apparently they'll facilitate your message via bellydancer. Unseen men discuss Kim out of earshot, remarking on her appearance, which in large part they've manufactured, especially the new red hair she's sporting—in fairness, they consider her body more obliquely and bloodlessly than you might think, but this just underlines how her attractiveness is foremost a business proposition for the company, and as such maybe defines her value to them even more reductively than it would if they did just want to fuck her.
Kim's next assignment is to go out to the Ventana nuclear power plant, and, with no staff personnel available, she brings along her old cameraman buddy, freelancer Richard Adams (Michael Douglas in a beard and long hair that make him look like Jesus in a small town church's Easter pageant), plus sound man Hector Salas (Daniel Valdez). They're given a tour—she reminds an ill-mannered Richard that "this is coverage, not controversy"—and, as fate would have it, within moments of entering the observation gallery for the control room, an earthquake hits and a scram event ensues, entailing an emergency shutdown and restart of the reactor. Shift supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) and lieutenant Ted Spindler (Wilford Brimley) and their team seem to take this calmly in stride—at first—but soon they realize they've made a very bad mistake as a result of a faulty water level gauge and they may have, oopsie-daisy, uncovered the core. Now they freak out very visibly, and even though they do manage to save the day, and even though Richard wasn't really supposed to be filming in here by law, when Kim, Richard, and Hector walk out of the Ventana plant, they walk out with documentary evidence of a potentially-disastrous accident that the company would strongly prefer remain under wraps, strongly enough that they lean on WXLA to kill the story entirely, which they eagerly do.
This sits poorly with Richard, who throws a tantrum about it, and it disquiets Kim as well, though she's far readier to toe the line, and maybe she would have, if in the aftermath her bosses didn't insult her to her face and deny her her ambitions to do real, hard news. It even disturbs Jack, who hates reporters and is deeply convinced that the systems he's dedicated his life to are safe, because in the midst of the scram event he felt a vibration that he is certain means something else is wrong with the plant, and nobody else seems to so much as care. Of course, Jack's right. There is something else wrong with the plant, as the whole world will discover sooner rather than later; and, with Kim and Richard's help, Jack's the only person in a position to even possibly stop it, though with the forces of the nuclear power industry arrayed against him, legally and extralegally alike, he probably won't be able to, not even when he takes the only option left to him that could still work.
Fonda was instrumental in getting the project going—she'd been pursuing a biopic about alleged nuclear power industry victim Karen Silkwood and decided The China Syndrome was the next best thing (several thrillered-up details of the Silkwood case find their way into the third act); the film's other child of Hollywood royalty, Douglas, produced it, which means that Douglas got to play the character who's always right, but, generously enough, Douglas clearly understood that Richard was also the least-interesting of the three leads, and so recedes almost entirely behind Fonda and Lemmon. What it all shakes out to, structurally, is one of the strongest examples of circular construction ever put into a screenplay, with the film essentially opening with an urgent, desperate sequence that repeats itself at the end because everybody but our heroes looked away and whistled, except it's even more urgent and desperate than it was the first time. In no small part that's because it's the end of the movie with five minutes left to go, and we're naturally in a higher state of tension than we were at the beginning, since the movie probably would not be so bold as to have spent the next hour and a half wandering a radioactive wasteland with a new cast because the old one blew up. In the meantime, then, and for a good long while, The China Syndrome keeps its cast in their own parallel stories, only occasionally intersecting, as Kim and Richard deal with a venal media, and Jack has a long week of the soul, with his conscience troubled by the new knowledge that not everybody, and maybe hardly anybody, in his whole industry is as trustworthy and moral as he is.
It has something of an isolating effect—Jack isn't allowed to talk to Ted about the NRC investigation, and when Richard up and steals the film he shot, Kim winds up being left alone for almost half the movie herself—and it's noticeable how insubstantial, self-serving, and wishy-washy our protagonists' resistance is for a long time, as they muster the nerve to do something, and ultimately, perhaps, they're compelled in spite of themselves. It's never a humorless movie, I should point out; it actually has several laugh-out-loud moments, most of them revolving around the media satire riding alongside the nuclear scaremongering (Lemmon's reactions to realizing that the woman to whom he's entrusted his career and the lives of thousands is also the woman who reads unbelievably inane news reports about dirty aquariums and downed hot air balloons are hilarious without him needing to say a word), but even the laughs here are so sour, arising as they do principally out of Fonda's extravagantly great performance, which can flip like a switch from Lois Lane, hard-nosed reporter, to a frilly, airheaded newsreader voice that makes her sound like she ought to have a court-appointed guardian.
On top of that, there's the very grudging way Fonda approaches Kim's heroism, not so different from Lemmon's film-long breakdown, except Fonda's keener to let us know that Kim sees the potential upside for her career. So, like, fuck Klute—this is where it's at. (At the same time, and don't take this the wrong way, but one could suspect that Fonda must be playing significantly younger than her own age: it's a little hard to square the job description of "eye candy pseudo-journalist in the 70s" and "42 year old woman for whom time moves in a linear fashion," inasmuch as Kim would probably not be on the ascending side of her career based solely on sexist metrics. Still, whether this comes off as complimentary in this context or not, Fonda's eye candy has always been more-or-less timeless, so don't think I'm saying this is distracting.) Anyway, the film is never a character study but frequently gestures toward deeper characters than I think it's given credit for.
It's in the details: the business with Kim's pet turtle feels insane given how little the film stresses it or even mentions it again (mostly because she carries it sideways under her arm like a box, something that might well be fine for turtles but certainly doesn't seem like it should be), but it also feels specific and personal (and, guess what, it was drawn specifically from a real-life newswoman Fonda had shadowed for preparation). There's also probably something important, in 1979, about how when Richard lets Kim have it for initially taking the station's side, he calls her an "asshole" instead of a "bitch," and this actually helps move her to action. As for Jack, he makes a pass at Kim that's frankly pathetic to watch (she'd just spent five minutes interrogating him and practically calling him a liar), but he withdraws politely, and you're left with a picture of a lonely man who desperately wants to distract himself from the giant technological system that he's torn up doesn't work the way he thought it did. Quietly, Jack represents one of Lemmon's very best performances; it's almost explicit that this is the equivalent of Jack losing his religion. At a certain point in the second hour, we realize that he's had barely-withheld tears in his eyes almost the entire time.
As a film—whether its mode be disaster thriller, paranoid thriller, media satire, or whatever else—Bridges puts The China Syndrome together masterfully. Not too flashily (car chase aside, it's a movie with little actual "action," and the action it does provide has to be communicated almost exclusively by the reactions of actors to blinking lights and closed-circuit cameras, and thus, befitting a film that's so much about television news, The China Syndrome is to a large degree a film about faces on the screen and faces twitching at screens). But the absence of blatant flash lets Bridges get stylish in subtler, more insidious ways. He and editor David Rawlins are apt to use the difference between sound and the absence of sound like a ratchet for the tension—the cuts between the silent observation gallery and the alarms in the soundproofed control room hit especially hard, and the contrast between the immediacy of the engineers' shouty panic and prayers and the way they look, from behind the glass, more like silent actors playing out some arcane scene inside a fishbowl works marvelously on the nerves. Even in the normal scenes, there's a tendency to interrupt quiet with cross-cuts that feel like they start exactly the moment the dialogue does, and an itchy penchant for doing the reverse and slamming the knife down on scenes the instant somebody's finished their line. (Incidentally, The China Syndrome has no score whatsoever. It does have an original pop song, a nice Chicago-esque ballad by Stephen Bishop called "Somewhere In Between," but it puts this on the radio over the opening credits where such things belong, which means I can't use this to convince myself this really is a disaster film.) There is, further, a notable emphasis on the color green: it's not, like, The Matrix, and it's so minute that I didn't even consciously notice it on a first watch, but in so many shots that it couldn't be unintentional, Bridges, cinematographer James Crabe, production designer George Jenkins, or costume designer Donald Lee Feld put some note of green into the frame—sometimes it's not so minute, sometimes it's bright emerald lights, but sometimes it's just a wall in a pale chartreuse—and it keeps the specter of radioactive catastrophe lurking constantly in the background, even when the film's focused on slower poisons like corruption or misogyny. (And just aesthetically, it works quite well with Fonda's hair dye.) I do think leaving the control room and the CCTVs during the finale was a mistake, but I suppose they paid for the model of the pump, so they wanted to get their money's worth when they broke it.
The China Syndrome may be one of the few films that really influenced public perception, though that's probably giving it undue praise, considering that, again, Three Mile Island was less than two weeks away. Besides, I'd rather not blame this movie for short-sighted activism that did its part to help us ruin our environment. I think the biggest miracle of The China Syndrome may be its avoidance of didactism—it respects Kim and Jack immensely, despite and maybe because of their ambivalence, and if it thinks snide anti-nuke hippies like Richard and the protestors at a new plant's licensing hearing don't come off like performative idiots, it's wrong—and much of this comes out of its late 70s milieu. It's tired of fighting, and is almost preemptively convinced it can't win, so it shouldn't try. It's a bitter, bitter film, and while there's a vicious, disaster-movie-loving part of me that does want it to just end when the lights go out in the control room, I think I like what it actually does with its conclusion even better. It's remarkable, anyway, that a film that's been this cynical and exhausted about the world earns, in the end, a glimmer of optimism instead.
*Wikipedia and at least a dozen other sites (with lazy writers, as they all appear to be using an uncited Wikipedia claim as their only source) assert that Columbia pulled it from "some theaters." None of them specify where these "some theaters" were, though if it ever happened at all I assume it happened in Pennsylvania; it couldn't have helped that the film refers to "stretch of land the size of Pennsylvania" being rendered uninhabitable.