Starring: Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, Jack Lemmon
Director: James Bridges
The China Sydrome is a metaphorical term used to describe the idea that if there was a nuclear meltdown at a power plant, the reactor would burn through the earth all the way to China. As you can see from the poster above, it wasn’t a well known term to the public, but a chilling concept.
The film follows Kimberley Wells (Fonda), an ambitious reporter who is too often left to cover human interest stories. When she’s sent to a power plant to cover a simple story about alternative energy sources, she and her small crew are witness to an accident, but when she wants to cover the incident, it’s swiftly covered up. She starts to realise that there may be some very real danger of the plant going into meltdown, and that someone doesn’t want the public to know.
Though the film itself is chilling, it became even more prescient when the Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident in Pennysylvania occured 12 days later. And even though the film is well over 30 years old, there are still some really scary concerns about the safety of power plants in the US (and elsewhere) today.
At this point in her career, Jane Fonda was largely done with the sex kitten personas of her earlier career (like Barbarella) and had come out in public support of some political ideals that had made her distinctly unpopular with some parts of society. She’s the perfect fit for the lead in this film, as she has the look of the beautiful and ambitious reporter but her performance shows the heart and social conscience of someone who is genuinely shocked.
Fonda is joined by (a really young) Michael Douglas, who also had a role in producing this film, and also by old hand Jack Lemmon, who works for the plant and knows the truth, but is afraid to speak up. They’re both wonderful and solid performers. The China Syndrome really feeds into social paranoia of the time, of cover ups and lies, and also into a strong tradition of journalistic films, especially those in which the media makes sure the public knows the truth. It’s a film that’s entertaining as a thriller, but also has a truly scary truth at it’s heart, the threat of nuclear meltdown.
See It If: a wonderful trio of central performers, and a chilling plot that though fictional, was remarkably realistic. A great 70’s thriller.