The China Syndrome Review

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Covering a simple story about alternative energy sources at a nuclear power plant, TV reporter Kimberly Wells witnesses what could be a safety breach. But, as she strives to bring the story to light, she finds herself caught up in a conspiracy to cover up the incident.


Thirteen days after this meaty conspiracy thriller, with both the mismanagement of risky power sources and the responsibility of the media in its sightlines, came out it became eerily prophetic. Disaster struck for real at the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island, and the film shifted from paranoid to realistic virtually overnight. An event that has skewed the general view of James Bridges’ toward being something of a disaster movie. It isn’t really, having more in common with such testy modern parables as Network and The Insider.

Hence, it owes most of its power to the seriousness of the performances. Jane Fonda, at the height of her political clamouring, works beautifully as the anchorwoman stuck in dead donkey stories, hoping to pick up some hard news credentials with a series on new energy sources. When she, and freelance cameraman Michael Douglas, surreptitiously capture a breach of safety standards — beautifully shot through rippling coffee cups and urgent red lights — she thinks she’s hit career paydirt.

The clincher for her story is Jack Lemmon’s nervy plant manager. In one of his great straight roles, with that sharp flavoured mix of hangdog and justly determined, Lemmon is the true believer confronting the cracking of his faith — his slow turn to whistle-blower one of the main dramatic strands.

The ‘70s may have been ebbing away, but Bridges keeps the film in tune with the era’s air of mistrust, shooting the movie with documentary stillness and clarity, mixing this with the futuristic sterility of the plant itself. Technology, as ever, is examined through a pessimistic prism, but the script is equipped with enough jargon and detail to expose the work and responsibility of the filmmakers. The underlying message is that it is human complacency more than anything that undoes noble scientific endeavour.

The final third captures an emotional power, ironically every bit as powerful as the nuclear equivalent, as the humanity both fights the cause and ushers in deception and cover-up.

Intelligent but dated conspiracy thriller.