'China Syndrome': A Nuclear Thriller Fonda, Lemmon and Douglas Star

W hen "The China Syndrome" opens tomorrow in 800 theaters across the country, the blood pressure of every electric power

When "The China Syndrome" opens tomorrow in 800 theaters across the country, the blood pressure of every electric power power executive whose company runs a nuclear power plant will go up like a skyrocket on the Fourth of July. And when the stock market opens Monday, the stocks of those power companies and of the companies that build the nuclear reactors may well go through the floor--all the way to China.

Why? Although "The China Syndrome" has nothing to do with China, it has everything to do with nuclear power plants. It is also a terrific, suspense-filled thriller with insights into television news and the role of women reporters, but when you leave the theater, it is nuclear power plants that will be on your mind. That may or may not be what the producers intended when they started making the film. But whatever their intentions they have made a film that could carry a great political impact along with its suspense and entertainment--and that's what the current furor over "The China Syndrome" is all about.

The film stars Jane Fonda as a television news reporter for a Los Angeles station who wants desperately to break out of fluffy features and into hard news. Jack Lemmon plays the supervisor of a nuclear plant's control room and Michael Douglas plays the free-lance cameraman who secretly films Lemmon and his control panel during a near-disaster at the plant. Fonda and Lemmon are well-known supporters of liberal causes and are both outspoken opponents of nuclear power. Douglas, however, is not a political activist and as producer of the film, has a considerable financial stake in its box-office success.

Here is the center of the problem. Fonda apparently sees the film as political, but recognizes that it must be entertaining as well. Douglas is concerned that with Fonda and Lemmon as stars, if the film gains a reputation as a tirade against nuclear power, few of the upstanding middle Americans he wants to fill those 800 theaters will go to see it. So for now, at least, Douglas emphasizes in interviews that "the film is a thriller. It has to work first as entertainment," and tries to downplay the clear political message of the film's nuclear power sequences. And Fonda and Lemmon, also hoping people will go see the film for themselves and then decide whether it's fair to the nuclear industry, are playing along.

Unfortunately for Douglas, the nuclear industry isn't playing along. General Electric, which manufactures equipment for nuclear plants, withdrew its sponsorship of a Barbara Walters T.V. special because Fonda talked about "The China Syndrome" on it. G.E. said its sponsorship would be "inappropriate" because the film could "cause undue public concern" about nuclear power. Douglas points out that G.E. hasn't seen the film yet and so doesn't know whether the concern is "undue," but G.E.'s worry seems warranted. A nuclear energy trade association has sent out reams of positive material on nuclear energy to film reviewers, and electric power trade magazine has warned its readers that "The China Syndrome" will open in their service area March 16, adding to their political problems.

Douglas's standard reply to criticisms from the nuclear industry is that they haven't seen the film and he "was just trying to make a really good thriller." In that ambition, Douglas admits, he may have succeeded all too well. "The China Syndrome" will scare people and the nuclear power industry because it not only works as a thriller, but also is highly realistic and convincing.


The film's title comes from jargon that nuclear power engineers use to describe the worst possible kind of nuclear power accident. It would happen if the core of the reactor, in which the chain reactions are taking place, were accidentally uncovered, instead of being surrounded by water within its pressure vessel. When the core is uncovered, its heat would melt through the vessel, and the concrete and steel building that surrounds it, right into the ground--and in the terms of the jargon, "right through to China." That wouldn't happen, of course. The reactor core would soon hit ground water, and send jets of radioactive steam shooting into the air, contaminating all the area around the plant. In fact, government studies have estimated that a serious "meltdown" or "China Syndrome" accident could easily kill 45,000 people and render an area the size of Pennsylvania forever uninhabitable. The same agency estimated that the chance of such a serious accident is about one in a million, or equal to the chances of meteor hitting a major U.S. city head on. But the point of "The China Syndrome" is that factors of human error and corporate greed make that chance much higher.

Fonda, a "Happy news" reporter seeking a more substantial story, goes with cameraman Douglas to film a special at a nuclear power plant outside Los Angeles where Lemmon is the control-room supervisor. While getting the standard tour from the plant's public relations man, buzzers ring, bells clang, the control panel lights up like a Christmas tree gone berserk, and the building shakes. Clearly, something is wrong.

Douglas secretly begins filming the panic unfolding in the room below him, while Fonda rushes back to the station, convinced that she has a story that will catapult her into hard news and out of fluff. But the station manager kills the story, after conferring with the power company's P.R. man. Fonda and Douglas keep trying to get the story out, and Lemmon joins their effort. The accident has alerted him to serious problems in the plant's safety precautions and he finds that inspection documents have been falsified. Lemmon tries, unsuccessfully, to prevent the plant from starting up again. As in any good thriller, Fonda, Douglas, and Lemmon meet again at the power plant in a stunning conclusion.

The film is starkly realistic (the sets were designed by the man who re-created The Washington Post newsroom for "All the President's Men") moves quickly, and pays off in a shattering climax. With stars like Fonda, Lemmon, and Douglas, and a subject as hot as nuclear power, the film should be a huge success.

Part of the film's sense of realism comes from the well-researched script. Each of the nuclear accident sequences is based on documented accidents in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission files, and the film also contains an incident reminiscent of the death of Karen Silk wood, an employee of a nuclear equipment manufacturing plant who was killed in an auto accident while she was driving to meet a union official and a New York Times reporter.

In addition to the highly convincing control-room sequences in the power plant, the film's treatment of television news is excellent. Fonda skillfully portrays an ex-commercial actress trying to get away from the trap of cute feature stories. Her professionalism shows as she plants a huge smile on her face on camera, while inwardly seething because her boss killed the nuclear accident story.

Michael Douglas as cameramen-photographer Adams has a shallow character; the film doesn't pay enough attention to him to get beyond the image of an angry young man trying to recapture the political activism of the '60s. But he works well as the cataylst that brings together Lemmon and Fonda in the finale.

Lemmon, despite Fonda's good performance and striking beauty, carries the film. Where Fonda and Douglas have roles that don't test them greatly, Lemmon takes a difficult role and plays it masterfully. As Goodell, the station manager, he develops from a staunch defender of nuclear power and its safety to a scandalized activist who realizes that corporate power and economic necessity have corrupted the safety procedures and inspections he holds sacred. Lemmon communicates the emotional torture that Goodell endures before he is finally forced to take action against the officials he believes will destroy his beloved plant--and with it, most of Los Angeles.

There are moments, as the film approaches its climax, when Goodell's motives are not entirely clear, but they fall well within the realm of dramatic license. And don't worry if you're not up on nuclear power: a brief but extremely well-done scene early in the film explains the mechanics of a nuclear power plant and prepares you for the brush with Armegaddon that follows. "The China Syndrome," as Douglas, its producer, says, is in the mold of "an old-fashioned thriller," and if you ever doubt fail-safe technology or wonder about the news you get on the tube, it will scare you. But see it anyway. It's worth it.


In an interview in New York earlier this week, Douglas responded to a barrage of questions about the film's anti-nuclear and anti-corporate tone by painting it as a thriller: "I think we all felt strongly it has to work as a piece of entertainment and we all saw a really good chance of doing a classic old-fashioned thriller. The picture had to be entertaining before it had any social or political comment to say," Douglas said.

But he also recognized that people may view it as a political film. "One of the things we've had to almost overcome is the fact that Jane and Jack happened to be people who have social consciences and are politically active. So then everybody tries to add one and one together and read all these other things into it...A Jane Fonda anti-nuclear film--that's a tough sell for 800 theaters across the country. So I think I felt, we all felt the film had a lot more to say, ...was pretty damn entertaining, and would have to hated to see it become polarized right off the bat."

Lemmon acknowledged the film may have a serious impact. Nobody has used a nuclear reactor as background before. And it is, far more than we ever realized, a hot issue. And hot is a mild word. Everybody jumps at that. And it takes a little while to get beyond that to understand why the real crux of the film...is the power behind the power--whether it's nuclear or anti-nuclear. It's the suppression of the story getting out. Was the public interest ever really at heart? Or was it just a corporate decision where money became more important than human life? Decent men doing indecent things. Because the values, the options, the priorities were screwed up. In other words, what are the choices? What are the options? Where is the public? We're all screwed," Lemmon said.

Fonda applauded Lemmon's speech, but then Douglas quickly cut in, bringing the discussion back to drama: "We almost did our job too well as a thriller. If what's bothering you is the sense of reality, that you're delving into these two particular industries or areas, more so than if we did it on television--where it was a little schlockier, a little more open, here you could say this is just a film, I don't have to worry about it--what's happened that we have taken it one step further."

Lemmon also notes that while he is "Diametrically opposed" in philosophy to the character he plays (a man who, until the end, believes that the system will work and that nuclear power is completely safe) he likes the character and admires him because of his heroic act that ends the film. Both Fonda and Lemmon say that the point of the film is that ordinary people, who fear for their jobs, who normally don't give much thought to politics, are capable of extraordinary action when they see something terribly wrong. As Lemmon said of his character, "No Caesar he--he was the average man, who behaved instinctively and morally unto himself when the circumstances demanded it, but he didn't plan it."

In many senses, the film is, as Douglas says, an old-fashioned thriller--and a fine one. As Fonda said this week, "It's a genre of film that has good guys and bad guys." True enough. But for better or worse, it's the nuclear power supporters and the corporate executives who are the bad guys in "The China Syndrome." Are you watching, Seabrook?