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Posts Tagged ‘Jane Fonda’

James Bridges’ 1979 film The China Syndrome opens and closes with the garish stripes and strident tone of a TV test screen, which is entirely appropriate given that most of what occurs in between is concerned with the media and its complex relationship with power (both literally and figuratively, in this case). This is a film which is very much of its period, but also one which remains entirely convincing and relevant to the world today. The film is mostly populated by characters either from the news media, or from large industrial concerns, and the conflict at the heart of the story is about just how much people deserve to be told about things which will directly affect them. Caught between the two sides is a decent everyman, played by Jack Lemmon. who realises the nature of the game but is perhaps not entirely capable of playing it.

To begin with we stay with the lead characters, Kimberley (Jane Fonda) and Richard (Michael Douglas); she is the on-screen talent for a roving news team, he is a freelance cameraman. As the film opens Kimberley is doing frivolous filler items, such as pieces on a singing telegram business, but would like to cover more serious news. She gets her chance when they are sent to the Ventana nuclear power plant outside Los Angeles, ostensibly to do a jolly where-your-power-comes-from piece. Everyone at the plant seems welcoming and professional, they are shown all the places security concerns permit – even into the gallery overlooking the main control room, which is thoroughly secure behind armoured doors and soundproof glass. Then there is what feels like a small earthquake. The PR man escorting them assures them it is nothing to be concerned about.

At which point the camera cuts to the room behind the soundproofing, where sirens are blaring, control boards are lighting up in red, and the technicians and shift manager Jack Godell (Lemmon) are desperately trying to keep the nuclear reactor from going out of control – faulty indicators have given a bad reading on the level of coolant in the system and their attempts to rectify the non-existent mistake have come perilously close to exposing the core and causing a catastrophe. They manage to salvage the situation and the reactor is shut down, but they are left badly shaken.

What nobody at the plant has noticed is that Richard has secretly filmed the whole thing, in the reasonable belief that a nuclear near-miss is newsworthy. He and Kimberley take it to their editors, only to find the network coming under severe pressure from the nuclear power industry to bury the story, arguing that the film was made illegally and the incident was not a serious one. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they; particularly so in this case, as the company is applying for a license to build another nuclear power plant in California and the last thing they need is any kind of bad publicity. Even keeping the plant off-line while the incident is investigated is costing them many millions of dollars every day.

Kimberley is bluntly told she is not an investigative reporter and should stick to the frilly human interest stories she was hired to do; Richard is incensed enough to steal the footage of the incident and show it to experts involved in the public hearings connected to the safety (or not) of the new plant. They are told that, based on the film, the plant came very close to a core meltdown and what is referred to as ‘the China syndrome’: the superheated core melting through the foundations of the plant and burning its way through the centre of the Earth to emerge somewhere in Asia. (This expression is only figurative – the culmination of this kind of accident would likely be the core reaching the water table, resulting in either rivers and lakes being poisoned with radioactivity, or an explosion producing enough radioactive vapour to render large regions of the continent uninhabitable for thousands of years to come.) Meanwhile, Godell has been carrying out his own investigation into the accident, and discovered that the plant’s safety records have been falsified in order to save money. If the plant is brought back on-line and brought up to full power, the same thing could happen again with cataclysmic results…

The element of The China Syndrome which has entered the public consciousness is the nuclear power angle, and rightly so: it does seem that every few years we get an ominous reminder of exactly what the forces are that we’re attempting to harness here, and the price of failure (the Chernobyl disaster came back into the public consciousness recently, and we are nearly a decade on from Fukushima). If the average person understands what the ‘China syndrome’ actually is, then it’s because of this film. The film’s producers, who were accused of slandering an entire industry by the operators of American nuclear plants, would doubtless say they were merely being socially responsible by drawing attention to the dangers involved – the film is not intrinsically anti-nuke, just opposed to these facilities being run by corporations putting profit ahead of any other concerns.

The film came out at the end of the 70s (famously, only a matter of days before the Three Mile Island accident, after which industry complaints about the movie presumably became rather more muted), and the latter stages of the decade did give rise to a whole slew of slightly paranoid thrillers in which, post-Watergate, ‘deep state’ forces and the military-industrial complex are shown to have essentially unchecked power within American society – I’m thinking of films like Executive Action (though this predates Watergate itself), Capricorn One, and so on. What is striking about these films is that they do absolutely function as thrillers – and The China Syndrome is amongst the best of them – while still managing to address serious contemporary concerns. In this case, the film seems rooted in a profound distrust of the profit motive, certainly when it clashes with public safety: the big corporations are not above falsifying records and even attempted murder in order to guarantee their revenue stream. (There is also a secondary but still well-handled subplot about Fonda’s character struggling to be taken seriously as a journalist in a male-dominated environment: understated but still effective, a lot of modern films could learn a lot about how to handle this kind of issue without seeming preachy from older movies like The China Syndrome.)

The whole film is rather admirable for the way it takes care to function firstly as a thriller, with its political subtext left implicit – and, within the drama framework, equal attention is paid to basic but important things like characterisation and dialogue. None of it is over-the-top, all the characters are essentially credible and well-performed to boot – there are good performances from Fonda and Douglas, and a predictably excellent one from Jack Lemmon, particularly in the film’s very well-structured climax. No wonder the film was so acclaimed and successful on its release: it still seems credible and timely today.

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