The China Syndrome (1979) [Film Review]

The China Syndrome is an anti-nuclear thriller-drama that evokes a sight of the terrifying situations. The terrific circumstances might occur if proper safety measures aren’t undertaken towards an electrical plant powered by nuclear energy. This 2 hours movie had aided the protests going on against the application of nuclear power in Bilbao, Spain (July 1977). The film received an extra publicity after a shocking real-life incident at Three-Mile-Island nuclear plant (Pennsylvania) that occurred three weeks after the movie was released.

The movie title is based on a theory that the melting of the core of nuclear power can lead the temperature to rise astronomically high. The radioactive heat produced from the fission products can make the nuclear fuel burst its metal case, even if the plant is shut down. Hypothetically, it could be impossible to cool down. It can melt its way down through the Earth’s core or perhaps can even come out on its opposite side of the crust, which is in China. This might lead the radioactive materials to spread extensively causing a major damage the environment around the nuclear plant.

The plot of the movie consists of three main actors with tremendously appreciable performances, Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda)- a popular TV reporter looking for some harder news, Richard Adams (Michael Douglas)- her cameraman and Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon)- an intelligent engineer and site supervisor in Southern California at a big nuclear plant station.

It all begins when reporter Wells arrives at a nuclear power plant in Ventana along with her cameraman Adams and soundman Hector Salas (Daniel Valdez). They witness an emergency shutdown (SCRAM) of plant. Meanwhile Godell experiences earthquake like vibrations. He learns that the gauge was misreading, however, the crew temporarily manage to control the reactor. Richard secretly captures the incident and exposes it to the experts, after a tactical approval from Wells. Curiosity leads them to learn many things about how the people work in plant. Taking the situation to experts, they realize that core has started to melt down, contaminating and hitting the groundwater, damaging the surrounding areas with the radioactive steam. This could bring the plant closer to what was called as “China Syndrome”.

They realize that the nuclear plant was nearly melting down due to the rumblings deep within the plant. Godell along with Adams and Wells decides to get the story in air. While in their fruitless efforts, their investigations bring them closer to the reality of a corrupted greedy corporate structure responsible for the faulty plant equipment construction. They realize that cost-trimming in construction of the plant would prove to be so dangerous that it might even lead to another meltdown, i.e. the title “China Syndrome”.

Godell meets the manager Herman DeYoung (Scott Brady) and provides him with evidences uncovering the falsified radiographs. He tries to prove the breakdown of the plant and its hazardous consequences. However, Herman ignores it making him feel like a paranoid, since he did not want to spend more $20 million on reconstruction. Godell also tries to threaten another employee of reporting the situation to Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In return, he is threatened by a pair of goons outside his house.

Despite the threat to death, Godell joins Adams and Wells in their efforts to air the incident about the SCRAM and fake radiography at NRC. Chased by the goons, Godell finds refuge in the plant. Desperate to broadcast, Godell finds the reactor, snatches a gun from security guard and forces everyone inside the plant to arrange for his interview. The technicians try to distract Godell amidst the broadcasting and cut the cable wire. With a tearful ending with Godell being shot by the police, the plant does suffer significant damages, as predicted by Godell himself.

The China Syndrome which grossed over a whooping US $35.7 million has won the award for best screen play. Adding to the human content, the key role played by Jack Lemmon won him the best actor’s award at the Cannes Film Festival, and Fonda’s superb acting has set her name nominated for the Golden Globes USA and Academy Awards. Script-writers Mike Gray, T.S. Cook and James Bridges have won the Writers Guild of America, USA (1980) Award. Director James Bridges has made a successful attempt in describing a fictional worst-case consequence of a nuclear plant meltdown.

The movie does not exhibit the characters as “anti-nuclear” crusaders; however, three ordinary people unite to solve a globally alarming situation. In this atomic age, the sober message about nuclear disaster and dishonesty in the corporate system along with commendable performance cannot be ignored. The movie also points out the fact that, certain factors like tsunami and earthquake cannot be controlled. There are many horrific natural disasters which can be controlled. However, if there are other disasters which have human errors in it, they can be controlled. The China Syndrome is one such masterpiece of examples, which exposes the corrupted corporate structure. Ignorance by greedy system, fake constructions and cost-cutting could result into a plant failure, which could prove harmful to the environment.

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