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The China Syndrome

The China Syndrome(1979)

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teaser The China Syndrome (1979)

In the June 13, 1983 issue of The New Yorker, film critic Pauline Kael compared the movie WarGames (1983) to The China Syndrome (1979), calling both "the kind of cautionary melodrama that succeeds or fails at the box office for reasons that have almost nothing to do with its quality." Whatever Kael, or anyone, may have thought about the cinematic merits of the film, she had a point. No one knows how this tale of an accident at a nuclear power plant might have fared with audiences if it hadn't been for a bizarre turn of events - on March 28, 1979, less than two weeks after the movie opened, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania had a real accident, the worst ever until the meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986. What may have seemed a "cautionary melodrama" or a piece of science fiction quickly became a prophetic and terrifying docu-drama of sorts, perhaps the most frightening of all nuclear nightmares for being so real and possible. "It goes beyond the realm of coincidence," co-star and producer Michael Douglas commented. "It's enough to make you religious."

Jane Fonda (in an auburn hairdo reminiscent of comic-strip reporter Brenda Starr) plays a TV news reporter who wants to advance from her usual fluffy featurettes (a plot device similar to one used in her other release that year, The Electric Horseman, 1979). Attempting to do a serious story on nuclear energy, she hires a freelance camera operator, played by Michael Douglas. The two are present at a nuclear power plant when a glitch occurs and a meltdown is avoided by the quick reactions of a veteran engineer (Jack Lemmon). Unknown to the plant executives, Douglas has captured it all on tape, but Fonda's station won't run the story, claiming it would unnecessarily frighten viewers. Douglas steals the footage to use it as evidence in a hearing on building a larger facility. In the meantime, Lemmon realizes the accident is being covered up, and after Douglas's soundman is killed trying to deliver crucial information Lemmon has given the news crew for use at the hearing, the engineer believes his life is in danger. He takes over the plant control room at gun point, demanding to be interviewed by Fonda, the only reporter he trusts.

The genesis of The China Syndrome came partly from Jane Fonda's roots as an outspoken political activist. Opposition to nuclear power was a centerpiece of the program of the Campaign for Economic Democracy, founded by Fonda's then-husband, Tom Hayden (one of the original Chicago 7 activists tried for their part in the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention). IPC Films, the company founded by Fonda and Bruce Gilbert, was scouting around for a script about nuclear power and tried unsuccessfully to buy the rights to the story of Karen Silkwood, a power plant worker who died under mysterious circumstances after discovering safety violations at a facility in Oklahoma. Then they discovered the script for this film by writer Mike Gray, who was originally slated to direct (Gray had attracted some attention as the producer of The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971), a controversial documentary on the late Black Panther). IPC bought into the project with Gilbert as executive producer and actor Michael Douglas, who had established his producer's track record with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), as producer. Douglas ended up taking on the role of the cameraman after Richard Dreyfuss, on the rise after his Oscar win for The Goodbye Girl (1977), priced himself out of the project.

Columbia balked at the untried Gray as director, so Douglas gave the job to James Bridges, whose last big success was The Paper Chase (1973). The studio also rejected the title, an industry term for a meltdown so hot it would reach "all the way to China." Executives insisted polls of the word "syndrome" showed most people equated it with disease. They offered the alternative titles "Power" and "Eyewitness." But two-time Oscar winner Fonda drew on her increasing power in Hollywood and forced the studio to accept the original title. Douglas also took a firm artistic stand, insisting on stark reality by forgoing any music on the soundtrack beyond the title song, "Somewhere in Between" by Stephen Bishop.

The movie drew tepid reviews in its first days, but the Three Mile Island accident propelled it into the national spotlight and audiences grew. It ended up receiving four Academy Award nominations (Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Actor (Lemmon), Best Actress (Fonda); a Writers Guild of America award for the screenplay; and Best Actor awards for Lemmon from the Cannes Film Festival and the British Academy. Fonda also won a British Academy Award for Best Actress.

An interesting bit of trivia regarding the movie: the TV station anchor was played by real-life tele-journalist Stan Bohrman, who returned to his news job after filming was completed and ended up reporting the incident at Three Mile Island.

Director: James Bridges
Producers: Bruce Gilbert, Michael Douglas
Screenplay: Mike Gray, T.S. Cook, James Bridges
Cinematography: James Crabe
Editing: David Rawlins
Production Design: George Jenkins, Arthur Jeph Parker
Original Music: Stephen Bishop, song "Somewhere in Between"
Cast: Jane Fonda (Kimberly Wells), Jack Lemmon (Jack Godell), Michael Douglas (Richard Adams), Scott Brady (Herman DeYoung), James Hampton (Bill Gibson), Wilford Brimley (Ted Spindler), Peter Donat (Don Jacovich), James Karen (Mac Churchill), Richard Herd (Evan McCormack).
C-123m. Closed captioning. Letterboxed.

by Rob Nixon

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