Jack Lemmon in The China Syndrome (1979)

Who's Got the Power

TV reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) and her cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) are at a Nuclear power station to do a piece on Nuclear energy when something goes wrong and Adams is able to secretly record footage of an emergency shutdown procedure. But their boss at the news channel, Don Jacovich (Peter Donat), refuses to clear the story to be aired and agrees with the Nuclear Energy commission to seal the story and the footage away in the vault. It leads to Richard stealing the footage to show to experts who suggest that they came close to a full scale catastrophy called a "China Syndrome". Meanwhile Jack Godwell (Jack Lemmon) the supervisor in the control room who performed the emergency shut down procedure finds his concerns over the safety of the plant being ignored by his superiors who would like to sweep the incident under the rug. With those in power trying to intimidate Jack to keep quiet about what he knows he finds himself back in touch with Kimberley and Richard who want to break the story.

When ever a movie is being released and one of the actors unfortunately dies it can quite often lead to and increase interest. Whilst no one died prior to the release of "The China Syndrome", or at least no one I am aware of, I imagine the Three Mile Island nuclear accident which happened 12 days after this movie was released resulted in an increase interest in it and of course box office takings. In truth even with out the Three Mile Island nuclear accident happening I am sure that "The China Syndrome" would have been a success as it is a classic thriller with a nice slice of conspiracy to make it work for those who always think we are never being told the truth.

Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas in The China Syndrome (1979)

I suspect that back in 1979 when "The China Syndrome" came out that part of what it made it work was fear factor over nuclear power stations. But as I watched it now what made it work was the simple conspiracy aspect as we see how those at the power station want to cover up the truth over what happened and how those in charge of news play ball over not reporting certain events. And of course that leads to are heroes, those who try to bring the truth out ending up in danger from those who wish to silence them. It is classic conspiracy and director James Bridges paces the whole thing beautifully to give us moments of exposition and moments of drama before moments of danger.

And it is very much Bridges direction which makes "The China Syndrome" work but credit has to go to Jack Lemmon who is fantastic as the supervising engineer who knows he is part of a cover up and diligently goes about checking the facts to prove to himself he is right before faced with the dilemma as to what to do with that knowledge. There is of course both Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas as reporter Kimberly and cameraman Richard but whilst they entertain their performances don't impress as much as Lemmon's or in deed Wilford Brimley who plays one of the operators at the power plant.

What this all boils down to is that "The China Syndrome" is still a terrific conspiracy movie with a fantastic performance from Jack Lemmon. In fact it is one of those movies which whilst visually dated is so solid with its drama, atmosphere and elements of danger that it is still a movie which others try to imitate.