The China Syndrome

1979, Movie, PG, 122 mins

Review

CHINA SYNDROME, THE
starstarstarstar
Life imitates art. What began as a fanciful premise in the minds of many turned into reality a few weeks after this picture opened when the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor had a dreadful accident.

Fonda plays Kimberly Wells, a television reporter trying to advance from cutesy features to harder news. Douglas is Richard Adams, a freelance cameraman she hires while attempting to do a story on nuclear energy. They're fortuitously present at a power plant when a crisis arises, and a meltdown is narrowly avoided by the quick reactions of engineer Jack Godell (Lemmon). Richard has it all on film and rushes it back to the station, but management won't put it on the air. Godell, meanwhile, is outraged when he learns that the authorities have covered up the incident. He searches the plant and discovers the problem: faulty welding from a cut-rate construction job. He contacts the reporters and gives them X-rays of the offending equipment. But when sound man Hector Salas (Valdez) is murdered while taking the information to a hearing on a proposed nuclear project, Godell realizes that his superiors will stop at nothing to cover up their criminal negligence. Meanwhile, Kimberly's transformation from naif to political activist--a Fonda trademark in 70s films from TOUT VA BIEN to COMING HOME--becomes the real substance of the narrative.

A film more open than most about its political stance, THE CHINA SYNDROME effectively deploys its polemic within the framework of a nightmarish but convincing story. The lack of incidental music adds to the quasi-documentary feel; tight scripting and direction ably maintain suspense during the protracted climax. The sometimes self-conscious and too-earnest Fonda and the occasionally hammy Lemmon both rise beautifully to the occasion, delivering performances that are among their best. In other roles Douglas, Brimley, Hampton, Brady, and Bohrman (an actual reporter who would go on to cover the Three Mile Island incident) offer sterling support. Not a comforting film, but an undeniably potent one. leave a comment

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