The China Syndrome (1979)

Dir. James Bridges. Starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas

Spoilers for The China Syndrome abound below. Usually I wouldn’t include a spoiler alert for a movie that’s more than thirty years old, but the film is fairly taut, and knowing too much about it would detract from the viewing experience.

It’s Los Angeles in the 1970s. Evening news personality Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) and her independent cameraman, Richard Adams (Michael Douglas, who I assume was hiding beneath the Bee Gees drag) are on assignment to do a fluff piece about the Ventana Nuclear Power Plant. They happen to be present when an accident – the term is disputed throughout the film, but it’s an accident – based on faulty machinery and compounded by human error occurs. The shift supervisor, Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon), manages to restore order after a tense two minutes and forty-five seconds. (The situation itself is eerily similar to Three Mile Island, which we’ll bring up again in a sec.) Even though it’s a felony to film parts of the plant that he doesn’t have access to, Adams sneakily makes a silent recording of flashing lights and anguished faces in the control room. The situation is quickly “resolved” in the minds of the higher-ups. The head honcho at the TV studio, after talking with the PR guy from Ventana, decides not to air the footage. Meanwhile, the head honcho of the power company realizes that the accident at Ventana is not only costing him hundreds of thousands of dollars daily, but it might jeopardize the permit for a new nuclear power plant.

Events snowball. Disgusted, Adams steals the footage back from the studio; while looking for him, Wells runs into Godell at a bar and gets more or less stonewalled about the facts of the case, as Godell trusts the process. That trust is shattered when he starts doing some fact-finding of his own: the systems themselves, which he extolled the virtues of to Wells, are actually deeply flawed. He finds out that safety checks on simple things, like relays and sockets, have never actually been completed. This is made worse when he is put under serious pressure to get the plant running again, to stop the financial bleeding.

Wells and Adams try to get him to testify at the hearing for the new nuclear power plant, but Godell, being tailed by company stooges, decides to go off-script. He takes the Ventana plant hostage, keeping it running at just enough power to blow Southern California to kingdom come if he so chooses, but not at enough power to jeopardize what he recognizes are the shaky foundations of the plant. Three minutes into an interview with Wells, in which he comes off more like “potential attention-grabbing terrorist” than “learned nuclear scientist trying to warn people that the plant is like, ten minutes away from blowing up all by itself because of the sleazy people running it,” three events occur simultaneously. His fellow technicians, espousing their loyalty to the company rather than to, I dunno, not going up in a flash of blue light, put the plant on the brink of a meltdown. Then the feed is cut. Then the police, on the orders of Ventana’s CEO, shoot and mortally wound Godell. The meltdown is corrected by the plant systems, but the TV reports deliberately skew the facts. Godell is cast as a crazy man trying to take California hostage until Wells  confronts Godell’s friend and fellow technician, Ted Spindler (Wilford Brimley). Though reticent at first to tell the truth – Spindler has been with the company for two decades – he caves, leaving some room for hope. Phew!

On March 28, 1979, the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania underwent a partial nuclear meltdown. On March 16, 1979, The China Syndrome was released in what is probably the single most serendipitous coincidence in film history. The two weeks between the release of the picture and the most dire nuclear catastrophe in the Western Hemisphere remains the calling card of The China Syndrome. However, I think we’re doing the movie a disservice, because it has to be the single most ’70s movie in the history of the world. Here’s a proof that has nothing to do with your high school Geometry class.

First Point: Kimberly Wells, can’t get an ounce of respect from any white guy in a suit. The Equal Rights Amendment was on its very last legs in 1979, but Wells is unimpressed with the Phyllis Schlaflii – her job is to be a pretty face on the evening news. More specifically, her specialty is soft news: she reports on an escaped hot air balloon, on a company that will sending a “singing telegram,” on a birthday party for a tiger. This is not her choice. She pleads with her boss (Peter Donat) at a party for opportunities to do investigative reporting. Not only is “Don Jacovich” too cheesed off at her cameraman to have wanted to listen to her anyway, but he is dismissive of Wells in a way that recalls John Slattery on Mad Men, except “Don Jacovich” is not simultaneously thumbing his nose at himself.. He uses professional baby talk to shut her down, eventually commenting on how nice her hair looks and how she should keep her hair like that. By the time we get to her interview with Jack Godell in the control room at the Ventana Nuclear Power Plant, we’re a little wrapped up in the potential vaporization of Southern California, but it’s worth noting that she has gotten into that control room by being deeply professional. She seizes on opportunities to point out that there’s more to the story than what’s being told to the public, and she doesn’t back down from doing what she thinks is right. That’s why she’s the reporter in the control room with Godell for the film’s denouement, and that’s why she goes after Spindler in a last-ditch effort to transmit something like the truth to her viewers. I’m not sure Kimberly Wells is a person so much as a symbol, but she’s definitely not a sex object. She’s a professional woman in a professional setting who facilitates meaningful actions. (And, bully for the movie, it does pass the Bechdel test.)

This is the first movie I’ve seen with Jane Fonda. (My fiancee and I flirted with watching Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy on Netflix, but settled for watching the trailer. It’s loopy, but doesn’t look quite as fun as Logan’s Run.) (My fiancee and I also took the same film class at the university we went to. Stars, the brilliant book by Richard Dyer, was the major textbook for the course, and it featured Fonda’s star role in significant detail. I miss that class.) The picture I have of her in my head is not “Hanoi Jane” or the prostitute in Klute, but the healthy-looking girl from Cat Ballou. It was a little bit of a shock to me to see her look more or less like an unglamorous normal person. Scratch that. She doesn’t look glamorous, per se, but she does look very much like her father in this picture. It’s hard not to make the connection between Kimberly Wells, do-gooder and Tom Joad, well-meaner.

When she made the film, she was a little more than forty, and she looks it. It’s a very earnest portrayal, and much of that has to do with Fonda’s looks: by acknowledging that a person over forty is probably not going to have dewy skin like a fourth-grader, she earns points with the viewer as an honest person; it’s a subtle coding that is much more subtle than anything else her character does, in fact.

Second Point: The lefties in this film – Wells, Adams, the people protesting a new nuclear facility – have no irony. They are marching in an oval with signs and chanting. They espouse their voicelessness with speeches before tying a scarf around their mouths. They joyfully point out that nuclear energy can do far more than bring power into the Brady household. I don’t know that I have much more to say than that on that topic, but my heavens, everyone certainly believes in what they’re doing!

Third Point: At one point during the film, Wells namedrops “Woodward and Bernstein.” The word “cover-up” is used more than once to describe the collusion of Ventana and KXLA to ensure that the average citizen knows nothing of the vast hazard of a broken nuclear power plant in the area. You can taste the paranoia in this film; after two full decades of feeling like the government has been hiding everything from the populace, a movie like The China Syndrome is practically inevitable – even if the government is barely involved. It doesn’t matter if you think the JFK assassination was an inside job or if you can’t go to the movies anymore without having some white male director talk about what Vietnam did to nice white American boys (lookin’ at you, The Deer Hunter): somewhere, you’ve been had. People have hidden the facts from you, and they got away with it.

Except for Watergate. That time, investigative reporters with a nose for the story and an unbelievable persistence managed to blow the cover off an election for president which was, frankly, rigged. Dick Nixon may have rigged the election in his favor, but he didn’t have long to enjoy the fruits of it before he left office a beaten man. This provides a weird double vision to the film, which calls to mind 3-D glasses. The blue lens is positive that your government is lying to you, and heck, why stop there? Any authority figure, anyone with money and power to preserve is probably lying to you, covering up the facts. And the red lens not only believes you can uncover the cover-up, but that you will.

The film ends as dramatically as it knows how to. The color bars of a TV feed that has been cut off fill the screen before the credits roll noiselessly in black and white. The China Syndrome wants very hard to make you untense your muscles in the movie theater once the lights start coming up, but it also wants to live in your head as you drive home. The problem is, The China Syndrome ends with that moment of hope. Spindler’s affirmation of Godell as a sane man  who must have had a good reason for holding up the Ventana power plant with a stolen gun, like some cut-rate bank robber, means that it’s not necessarily likely that the bad guys will win. One actually gets the sense that, like Nixon, Ventana wins the first round. They kill the one man with the knowledge and wherewithal and documentation to challenge their scheme. But it’s not hard to imagine that the Spindler interpretation will have weight of its own with viewers. In 2015, there would have been another scene – perhaps it would have been the first scene of the film – in which Ted Spindler’s corpse is carefully arranged to make it look like he killed himself. The ’70s were an optimistic time. Nobody who holds a civic meeting in a room with green accent lights and cheery plastic chairs in red, yellow, and blue can really think that there’d be cover-up the American people couldn’t uncover. (Perhaps they were right, but Chelsea Manning is in a jail cell tonight and most Americans couldn’t even tell you who she is.)

“Even with a faulty relay, even with a stuck valve, that system works.” That’s Jack Godell, telling off Kimberly Wells in a bar. He firmly believes that his power plant is going to come through, even if there are hitches in the giddyup from time to time. There are checks and balances to the system and, golly, did we just stumble into a subtle-as-a-concrete-wall-covering-up-the-skeleton-of-a-nuclear-power-plant-outside-Pripyat metaphor? It’s hard not to hear that line about “faulty relays” and not think of rigged elections, and even more difficult to hear “that system works” without the American flag waving behind “DEMOCRACY” in some Gothic font.

It’s easy to watch the movie and say, “The system killed Jack Godell, so where’s the optimism?” But it didn’t. The system was the power plant, and the plant didn’t kill Goodell. People did. A SWAT team, as an arm of the whim of a powerful corporation, shot him down. He had been on television only moments before, but he would never have needed to go on television if the station airing his interview had been willing to get behind the First Amendment rather than cater to the whims of Ventana. The people working the system, argues The China Syndrome, they’re the ones we have to watch out for. The system will do just fine with tinkering and a little care, but there are people who will not want to be bothered with fixing the system because it serves them just fine as it is. This is not a complicated moral, or a subtle one. But it is, unlike Michael Douglas’ bell-bottom pants, relevant to our own time.

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