The China Syndrome

So how do you make a political movie that pulls in the punter? Having just seen it, I think the film ‘The China Syndrome’ (1979) has some answers.

1. Great cast The film is about a female TV reporter and cameraman who discover safety cover-ups in a nuclear power plant.  It stars some of the worlds most famous actors, Jack Lemmon as the nuclear plant head engineer, Jane Fonda the female reporter and Michael Douglas as the camera man. A cast of that ilk helps with the box office, so a tick there.

2. Good publicity The movie was distributed by Columbia Pictures and produced by Michael Douglas, so between they would have been able to put in some good publicity work. On top of this, twelve days after the release a real life tragedy mirrored art as the Three Mile Nuclear accident happened in Pennslyvania. No-one was hurt at the time but the public debate on nuclear energy intensified and as Jonny Carson commented in his interview with Michael Douglas “Boy, you sure have one hell of a publicity agent”.

3. Fast, entertaining and compelling story So what about the story? The script is brilliant, it takes all the facts about nuclear power and about the responsibility of television and wraps it up into a thriller. From the moment it starts you are gripped into Jane Fonda’s world. She is desperate to find a story and there is no bigger story then a power plant that has the potential to kill millions of people.

The argument of nuclear power still carries on today, but at the end of the 70’s it was the energy debate. New and complex, nuclear power can give us clean cheap energy but comes with huge potential risks, and this is at the very heart of the film. Always in the films background is the danger of an explosion whilst the mechanics of the plot gets involved in cover ups and politics.

The film also looks at the responsibility that the TV stations have. When Kimberley Wells (Jane Fonda) is cut off by the program director of the TV station where she works when asked a question about the station’s civic responsibility, he replies, “She doesn’t make policy—she’s a performer.” The news is a show like any other and just like the energy corporation, the TV station is there to make money.

The characters are simply drawn and given well defined objectives with huge consequences and big obstacles in their way. We don’t explore the home lives of the characters as they all live to work, but we are taken on their emotional journey. Will they get their story, will Jack Lemmon manage to tell the truth, and how will they all react to the obstacles thrown in their path by the energy corporation? All this creates massive tension in the film.

The suspense is never left to lie which is helped by the locations of the film. The nuclear plant and the television newsroom. Both are spaces that are high pressured and contained. We almost never leave these spaces so there is no pause for breath. Indeed some of the few times we do go elsewhere is for a car chase as the energy corporation tightens its noose around our heroes, only to crank up the pace.

This all leads to a fast and entertaining thriller, but what really sets it apart is that it never steps away from its responsibility. The moral question at the heart of the film is never allowed to lie down. Pivotal to this is Jack Lemmon’s character. The writers create for him a moral dilemma of divided loyalty. Should he whistle blow about the safety of the plant that he has worked is whole life on or keep quiet so as to keep his job, and as the film goes on, his life. A question that the corporation has no problem in answering.

The film went on to be nominated for the Palm D’Or, four Oscars and four BAFTA’s. Jack Lemmon won best actor at Cannes and the BAFTA’s and nominated for an Oscar. Jane Fonda was also nominated for an Oscar.