IMAGINE, if you can, a film like All the President's Men. Woodward and Bernstein, however, have become a woman television reporter and cameraman, and instead of bringing down a president, they're hot on the trail of a near-disaster at a nuclear power plant that almost destroyed Southern California. They've even found a new "Deep Throat": a control-room supervisor at the plant who fears that the accident may happen again, and go out of control. The result is a race against the clock, against the utility company that runs the plant, and against the television station manager who wants to avoid controversy at any cost. The film is The China Syndrome, but unlike All the President's Men, nobody knows the ending, so it is a fine, riveting thriller that manages to scare and entertain at the same time.
The film opens with the "tone and bars" test pattern of a T.V. minicam about to feed a live report to the evening news. Cut to Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), a local reporter hired for her red hair, good looks, and ability to deliver a snappy, well-timed piece of fluff to end the evening newscast. After doing her usual competent but contentless job, she's told to spend the next day filming a special on energy at a nuclear power plant outside Los Angeles.
Wells takes free-lance cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) with her on the assignment. Adams is a stereotype of the bearded, aggressive, ex-radical for whom the sixties never ended, who cracks jokes about the nuclear shit hitting the fan and the plant exploding. While the plant's P.R. man (James Hampton, a veteran of T.V.'s "F-Troop" and "Rockford Files") proudly displays the space-age control room from the bird's eye perspective of the visitor's gallery, the shit indeed hits the fan. The building shakes, buzzers blast, and control panel lights flash like a Christmas tree gone beserk. Douglas surreptitiously films the panic unfolding below him, focusing on the contorted face of supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon '47). By adroitly juggling water valves and pressure relief systems, he prevents the plant from destroying itself. But Godell's expressions of horror, prayer, and finally relief convince Adams and Wells that they have a real story.
After bringing his three stars together in the tense sequence early in the film, director and co-screenwriter James Bridges tells three separate stories for the rest of the film. Godell tries to unscramble the reasons for the near-catastrophe. Wells's boss kills her story, and locks the film in the vault, but she keeps trying--unsuccessfully--to convince him to let her do hard news. Adams, meanwhile, steals the film to figure out what really happened at the plant and get the story out. As in any good thriller, these three stories become increasingly intertwined and finally come together in the film's roaring climax.
THE FILM'S TITLE, incidentally, comes from nuclear engineers' jargon for the worst of all possible accidents at a nuclear power plant. If the level of the water circulating around the hot reactor core drops far enough that the core is uncovered, the heat of the reaction melts the steel containment vessel. Then the reactor itself sinks through the plant's floor, into the ground and, in theory, "all the way to China." In reality, it hits ground water first, and sends clouds of radioactive steam shooting into the atmosphere, killing or contaminating everything for miles around. Not a pleasant thought, but one that supplies the film's essential tension.
The China Syndrome is not a disaster film in the style of The Towering Inferno nor Earthquake--it doesn't even rely on ritual seduction scenes to cement the plot. Lemmon and Fonda portray characters who are average people, holding perhaps better-than-average jobs, who act heroically when the circumstances demand it. Fonda is very believable as a success-oriented member of the "Me Generation," at first frustrated far more by her boss's fluffy conception of her than by his cover-up of her nuclear accident story. "I've got a pretty good job, and I fully intend to keep it and get a better one," she tells Adams before he leaves the station in a rage. By the film's end, although she is not polished at doing hard news as she is at cute features, she gets a great story.
Lemmon, as a former nuclear submarine officer caught in the utility company's middle management, does an excellent job of portraying Godell's belief in "the system" and its safety. Realizing that higher management executives have tampered with his sacred safety procedures and have perverted the reactor that he, with complete sincerity, says he loves, Lemmon's portrayal of Godell's personal struggle carries the film.
The rest of the cast, including Douglas, have parts that offer little depth of characterization. Douglas breezes through his role as an angry Vietnam vet-turned-freelance cameraman. The utitility company executives are all shown as thoroughly evil, motivated only by greed, while Godell's fellow technicians at the plant simply take orders--until well after the critical moment.
THAT MAKES The China Syndrome work as a thriller are its fine details. The nuclear control room set was designed by the man who re-created The Washington Post newsroom in All the President's Men; the T.V. studio and control room were from a real Los Angeles station. (Fonda's anchorman was played by an L.A. anchorman apparantly well-versed in the "Happy News" style.) The plot is well-crafted, and doesn't fall into the predictable action cliches that mar most current action/suspense films.
The film entertains as a first-rate thriller while carrying a rather clear--if unsophisticated--political message. The China Syndrome is a fine example of what film can do: it manipulates you and scares you.
'China Syndrome': A Nuclear Thriller Fonda, Lemmon and Douglas StarW hen "The China Syndrome" opens tomorrow in 800 theaters across the country, the blood pressure of every electric power
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