A Prophetic Tale: The China Syndrome

What the 1979 thriller teaches us about post-Watergate America.

Via IMDB — © 1979 Columbia

On March 28th, 1979, the most serious nuclear power plant incident in U.S history occurred when Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station suffered a major cooling malfunction, resulting in a partial meltdown of one the reactors. The timing of the accident was an incredible coincidence, given that it happened a matter of days after the release of The China Syndrome (Bridges, 1979); a picture which outlined the dangers inherent in the generation of nuclear energy. Despite the Three Mile Island incident not resulting in any fatalities, this remarkable case of real life imitating Hollywood helped to dismiss the notion that the picture was a simple example of ‘leftist fear mongering’ (Dunber & Levitt, 2007) and instead a realistic parable that justified the worries of an American public who were actively campaigning against nuclear energy (star Jane Fonda, an anti nuclear campaigner herself, described the event as the best example of congruity between real life tragedy and a film story she’d ever seen). Arriving at the end of the 70s, it was another in a line of films within that decade which dealt with the anxieties surrounding authority in a post-Watergate America. It also explored aspects such as the integrity of the news media and the paranoid, isolated individuals who emerged from this climate and tried to stand up to those who asserted so much power over others.

Via IMDB — © 1979 Columbia

The film follows television reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) and her cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas, also producer on the picture) who one day visit the Ventana Nuclear Power Plant in order to report a simple story on energy usage. Whilst observing a control room, they witness the technicians and supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) attempt to deal with what appears to be an unexpected and serious accident within the plant. Whilst the workers are able to avert potential disaster, Kimberly and Richard believe that the incident should be public knowledge and continue to investigate the situation, whilst Jack is unable to convince his superiors that what happened was just a prelude for a much more cataclysmic event. As the film progresses, Jack, who is concerned about the swiftness of the creation of the post accident report, also investigates further and uncovers several security flaws and long running, cost-saving cover-ups. Despite the danger that he knows will befall him from his superiors who have the support of security guards, Jack realises that there is no other choice than for him to hold the building to ransom and let Kimberly broadcast his statements on the condition of the plant on live television.

One aspect that is an immediately striking technical facet of the picture is the sound design, which contributes to the realism and makes The China Syndrome feel almost like a documentary at times. Because of a lack of a musical score, everything audiences hear comes from within the film world itself; a conscious choice on the part of the filmmakers who believed that the musical accompaniment they originally had planned was actually an unnecessary addition which hurt the tense moments within the picture: “What was dramatic became melodramatic” (Quoted in Hubai, 2018: 18) said Michael Douglas. It is indeed much more effective to listen to the beeping of the switches as the workers attempt to bring the situations they are faced with under control than any additional score would have been (the fact that Bridges doesn’t hold back on the technical nuclear jargon spoken which audiences may not even understand makes us feel like we are truly observing this workplace). It also feels like a genuinely authentic piece of work due to the production design by All the President’s Men (Pakula, 1976) alumni George Jenkins, who creates a living breathing nuclear control room that is the beating heart of the picture — the place where disaster can be caused or averted in an instant.

Like Ace In the Hole (Wilder, 1951) and Network (Lumet, 1976), The China Syndrome has a somewhat cynical approach to its portrayal of the news media (initially), directly referenced to by Jack at one point, who tells Kimberly that he doesn’t like reporters due to their belief that the only good news is bad news (similar to Kirk Douglas’ Chuck Tatum’s iconic phrase in Ace in the Hole: “Good news is no news”). Television news in The China Syndrome is seen as more of an entertainment show rather than an institution offering an important public service, we open the film as Kimberly is assigned to puff piece reporting on a belly dancer giving out telegrams, and we follow her as she fights her bosses to make her substantial story on the power plant known to the public. In the early 80s, just three years after the release of The China Syndrome, The New York Times discussed this concept of TV news increasingly being packaged in this more glossy manner, summarising that the lowest rated of the three networks at the time (NBC) was the one that adapted the most ‘traditional’ (and therefore, dullest) look. Overall the article states that during this time, ‘the emphasis [of television news] has begun shifting from providing thoughtful journalism, to serving up a product that is faster paced, but more superficial’ (Schwartz, 1982).

Via IMDB — © 1979 Columbia

However, while The China Syndrome starts off and continues in a manner that attacks the lack of depth within news reporting at the time, it ultimately ends on positive image, putting it alongside pictures such as the aforementioned All the President’s Men which also spoke of the vital roles played by investigative journalists in exposing corruption and lies (it’s easy to see Kimberly and Richard as the Woodward and Bernstein of this particular story). The last scene of The China Syndrome sees our main villains speaking to the press and twisting the events of that evening to make Jack appear like a madman; only when Kimberly steps in to interview his friend Ted (Wilford Brimley) does the story finally become two sided as he assures audiences at home that not only was Jack the sanest person he ever knew, but that this time there will be a thorough investigation. Whilst the film is book ended by news reports, it is the one at the end of the picture which establishes the worth of the media by not only showing how they are able to deliver hard-hitting truths about American institutions which would otherwise be denied, but also in establishing justice for those who are undermined by these authority figures.

The China Syndrome was one of many pictures released in the decade which can be categorised under the banner of the ‘paranoia thriller’, wherein the political climate of the time resulted in an American public deeply distrustful of their government. There is even a sequence which appears to mimic the suspicious events surrounding the death of nuclear activist Karen Silkwood, when the third member of Kimberly’s crew, Hector (Daniel Valdes) is pushed off the road whilst trying to transport damning x-rays capable of bringing the plant to its knees to a hearing. This collapse of faith in institutions following several historical events, but particularly the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover up is in full display in Bridges’ film; critic Kathe Boehringer even defined the picture as, quite simply, a ‘nuclear Watergate’ (1979: 47). If Nixon has been described as an individual who ‘told so many lies to so many different people that one stands in awe of his ability to keep track of what lies he told to whom’ (Kirshner, 2013: 136), then the same can be said of the officials and managers in charge of the plant. After Jack discovers that the x-rays determining the state of the welding in the plant have been falsified and copied over month after month, he brings it to the attention of the individual responsible for signing them off who of course categorically denies that this is an unsafe practice. Up until the last few minutes when he is interviewed on television (and even then he ends up being undermined and unfairly portrayed), Jack is ‘helplessly in thrall to a parochial management’ (Goldman, 1989: 277), a management that views their own public perception as a more pressing and important matter than the safety of the public or their employees.

Via IMDB — © 1979 Columbia

Whilst it’s obvious that the filmmakers didn’t intend to make a film that had an impartial take on nuclear energy, Jane Fonda states that the picture could have been set anywhere; the aim was to get across the idea of how destructive human behaviour could be: “It was intended as an attack on greed, not nuclear energy” (Quoted in Harmetz, 1979) she has said. Indeed, supervisor Herman De Young (Scott Brady) laments the fact that the plant is losing money each day it is off the grid more than he fears the potential catastrophe that Jack tells him is likely to happen if they start generating energy again. Like many of the best disaster pictures, The China Syndrome suggests that the accidents which occur within its narrative are ultimately man made, or are at least exacerbated by the actions of people who abuse the power that they have. Whilst a multitude of unfortunate malfunctions is what sets the terrible events of The China Syndrome in motion, authority figures fail to subsequently take responsibility and learn from what went wrong. The Three Mile Island incident itself has been viewed as an event which was both avoidable and a combination of human as well as mechanical errors: Walker describes the disaster as a crisis stemming from ‘mistakes, oversights and misjudgments’ (2004: 3). Producer Michael Douglas viewed the plant within the The China Syndrome as a character itself, a type of unmanageable monster which is constantly unpredictable. There is indeed a sense that no-one is able to bring something that is their own creation under control. This is not helped by the fact that many of those working in the control room seem strikingly young; like the recent series Chernobyl (Mazin, 2019), which drew attention to the intense amount of responsibility placed upon many of the employees who were barely out of their 20s, The China Syndrome also makes a statement on how new (and therefore unfamiliar and inexperienced) the industry was at the time (whilst observing the control room, Richard remarks that Ted is “the only guy old enough to know what he’s doing”).

It may be for these reasons that technology, another theme of the film, is often viewed as a hindrance in The China Syndrome. Goldman writes that this negative perception throughout much of cinema stems from the idea that technology has been corrupted by corporate and government institutionalisation: ‘it [technology] is depicted as resulting in a soul and body crushing work environment’ (1989: 285). This definitely rings true here, plant workers can barely hear each other over the buzzing and blinking of the various alarms in the control room, whilst Jack isn’t able to rely on the supposedly ‘fail safe’ water meter readings at his station. One of the most chilling moments of the picture, and again one that benefits from the aforementioned lack of music occurs here, when Godell and his co-workers are led to believe that the water levels are normal, only when he taps his finger on the meter does the needle drop and alert them all to the fact that it is actually, dangerously low. Furthermore, what drives Jack’s obsessive belief that the plant simply is not safe is his observation of a subtle ‘shudder’ after the turbine trip which he sees when going to grab his drink. Despite the assertion made by employees that the quality control features within the plant are second only to NASA, it’s something as primitive as a ripple in a cup of coffee that demonstrates the lax safety measures in place, not a reading from a state-of-the-art computer.

Via Critical Dave — © 1979 Columbia

After three nominations, Jack Lemmon was finally a leading actor Oscar winner by the time of The China Syndrome for his role as businessman Harry Stoner in Save the Tiger (Avildsen, 1973), and it makes for fascinating reading to compare the similarities in the motivations and struggles of his character in both pictures. Neil Sinyard writes that his performance in Bridges’ film is poignant because Jack ‘is not a natural trouble maker’ (11: 2018), which is a similar way of viewing his character within his Academy Award winning role. In both pictures he plays a detached outcast forced into becoming uncharacteristically rebellious due to circumstances outside of his control (in Save the Tiger he is driven to forging his books and committing an insurance scam to save his garment factory). Whilst Harry doesn’t perhaps have the integrity that Jack does, both are understandably disillusioned by the world around them ( Save the Tiger’s title is a possible reference to his character within the film feeling like he is part of a breed of man slowly on the verge of extinction — the WWII veteran who longs for the simpler times of the past). It’s evident more and more as Save the Tiger goes on, that Harry was a man once extremely idealistic in nature but who now no longer feels like he is a relevant part of the America he grew up in, an America that has changed beyond recognition — for the worst. Similarly, Jack declares his love for the Ventana plant and regards it as his entire life, but by the end of the picture he is forced into abandoning his moral compass by holding the entire building to ransom. Both men are seen as easily replaceable relics of the past, whilst Harry’s sacrifice as a WWII veteran is ignored by the teen generation, Jack’s determination in helping to prevent a Chernobyl-like disaster is brushed off by his bosses who regard him as a mere trouble maker costing them money. Both Save the Tiger and The China Syndrome make poignant statements on the condition of the country in the 70s, and how this affected peoples views on what was gradually becoming a distorted vision of the American Dream.

The China Syndrome, despite being difficult to look at outside the historical context that it existed in or the real world events surrounding it, is such a thrilling film on its own merits. David Rawlins’ editing is tremendously effective throughout, but particularly during the climatic last scenes as he crosscuts between the various locations in the plant as Jack is making his broadcast. Bridges’ direction makes what could have been a preachy and melodramatic story into an almost unbearably tense parable on something that could have been applicable to virtually any industry. While one might argue that The China Syndrome doesn’t work as a truly significant attack on the nuclear industry (after all, despite there being severe damage caused to the plant in the malfunction that occurs at the end, the safety features do ultimately kick in and no one in the surrounding area is exposed to radiation), it still raises important questions on the role of the media as well as the power of institutions and how they were feared in 1970s America. Critic Vincent Canby described the The China Syndrome as ‘an ageless morality play about greed and vanity’ (The New York Times, 1979), and it’s definitely clear to see how the concepts of misinformation and the paranoia surrounding how much trust can be placed in authority figures has continued over 40 years later and influenced works such a Chernobyl.

Originally published at https://www.dialmformovies.co.uk on February 22, 2020.


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