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CHINA SYNDROME (director/writer: James Bridges; screenwriters: Mike Gray/T.S. Cook; cinematographer: James Crabe; editor: David Rawlins; music: Stephen Bishop/song “Somewhere in Between”; cast: Jane Fonda (Kimberly Wells), Jack Lemmon (Jack Godell), Michael Douglas (Richard Adams), Scott Brady (Herman DeYoung), James Hampton (Bill Gibson), Wilford Brimley (Ted Spindler), Peter Donat (Don Jacovich), James Karen (Mac Churchill), Richard Herd (Evan McCormack), Daniel Valdez (Hector Salas), Stan Bohrman (Pete Martin), Donald Hotton (Dr. Elliott Lowell), Ron Lombard (Barney); Runtime: 122; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Bruce Gilbert/Michael Douglas; Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment; 1979)
“It’s an exciting and worthwhile old-fashioned thriller about the dangers of a nuclear power accident.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The title refers to a meltdown so hot it would reach “all the way to China.” It’s an exciting and worthwhile old-fashioned thriller about the dangers of a nuclear power accident co-starring and co-produced by Michael Douglas, that greatly benefited in that it was released only 13 days before the nuclear disaster at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania—the world’s worst nuclear disaster until eclipsed by the meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986. Director James Bridges (“Mike’s Murder”/”Urban Cowboy”/”The Paper Chase”) keeps the tension mounting until the nail-biting climax delivers the knockout blow. Bridges cowrites it with Mike Gray and T.S. Cook, as the tight script keeps its focus throughout on the nuclear problem though taking healthy swipes at lightweight news coverage and has the good fortune to be right about predicting a nuclear disaster.

Ambitious, smart and hot-looking Los Angeles TV field reporter on KXLA, Kimberley Wells (Jane Fonda), and her camera crew led by free-lancer award-winning cameraman intuitive Richard Adams (Michael Douglas), are in the visitor’s gallery at the Ventana Nuclear Power Plant in Southern California, a four-year-old nuclear power plant owned by California Gas and Electric, to do one of her usual popular fluff reports. Instead of being at the zoo or covering singing telegrams, this one is a harmless publicity one on nuclear power. PR person Bill Gibson (James Hampton) is giving them a tour of the facility as the alert signals go off in the control room and a sweaty shift supervisor, Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon), and his team of engineer technicians, are relieved to bring the problem under control after much concern. Afterwards the nuclear people downplay the incident as routine (saying it’s only “a routine turbine trip”) and quickly pass an investigation administered on the fast track by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The station manager, Don Jacovich (Peter Donat), despite it being a scoop refused to show the unauthorized film on the news program that Richard secretly shot fearing a law suit and not wanting to tangle with such a big company, but the bearded peace activist, Richard, felt it’s important enough a story to disclose to the public so he steals the film from the studio vault and shows it to nuclear experts at an anti-nuclear rally who give their opinion that a China Syndrome was narrowly averted at the plant.

When true believer in nuclear power Jack discovers that the plant’s security seals have all been faked in their inspection and the company refuses to ante up the 30 to 50 million dollars or so needed to replace them for reasons of cost and because they’re in a hurry to get another license through to open up another nuclear plant, the honest and dedicated Jack fears the worst and wants the plant shut for repairs and decides to do the right thing as his conscience dictates. The unlikely whistle-blower Jack gets into contact with Kimberley (no longer wanting to be thought of as “talking furniture”) and Richard (coming to life again as an activist) when his superiors refuse to listen to him. It’s now up to the three ‘little guy’ heroes to fight the powerful unscrupulous corporate heads to prevent a potential disaster and save humanity.

The Hollywood mainstream action pic that comes with some political clout, received four Academy Award nominations (Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Actor (Lemmon), Best Actress (Fonda); a Writers Guild of America award for the screenplay; and Best Actor awards for Lemmon from the Cannes Film Festival and the British Academy. Fonda also won a British Academy Award for Best Actress.

Though some might have felt the cautionary melodrama was too self-congratulatory in its earnestness, it nevertheless made some good points, raised thought-provoking ethical questions, was well-acted and well-written, and was always engrossing and relevant.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”