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Review: The China Syndrome (1979)

The China Syndrome (1979)

Directed by: James Bridges

Premise: A news crew (Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, and Daniel Valdez) record footage of an accident at a nuclear power plant. As the team tries to verify the facts, a control room operator (Jack Lemmon) discovers a flaw in the plant that could reveal a much larger and more dangerous problem.

What Works: The China Syndrome is a tight and intelligent conspiracy thriller. This is very good storytelling. The film is very well paced, as it introduces multiple storylines and cuts effectively between them, never shorting one or the other for plot, tension, or character development, but it also maintains a tight enough reign in the editing that each scene is just long enough to make its contribution to the film. The China Syndrome deals with potentially complicated technical content but it handles the exposition very well, giving the audience the basic information that they need to understand the development of the plot while not losing the audience or the story in the details. It also does not dumb down its content and instead points an accusing finger at the news media for underestimating the intelligence of its audience and compromising its integrity for profitability. This theme is even more resonant now than when the film was made. The performances by the main cast are all strong but the two great roles of the film belong to Jack Lemmon and Wilford Brimley as power plant control room operators. Lemmon carries much of the film’s dramatic weight as the man who realizes the true gravity of the situation and the burden of that knowledge hangs on his performance. Brimley is also very effective as the blue collar company man who is caught between his duties to him employers and doing the socially conscious thing and Brimley plays it great, embodying the dilemma of a corporate employee.

What Doesn’t: The conclusion of The China Syndrome is a mixed bag. The turn the story takes is unexpected and yet it is also consistent with the paranoia of 1970s films. There is an opportunity in the climax to make a bold storytelling decision, but the finale ultimately goes for a happier, less edgy, more Hollywood ending. It does not refute the themes or integrity of the movie and on its own terms it is a satisfying resolution. But a darker conclusion would have been an interesting and braver choice, although it might have left have limited the film’s commercial appeal.

DVD extras: Featurettes, deleted scenes, and filmographies.

Bottom Line: The China Syndrome is an effective 1970s conspiracy thriller. Even though the ending is a little conventional in the genre of paranoid thrillers, it is still a provocative film and a well told story. 

Episode: #332 (March 27, 2011)