The China Syndrome
Meltdown in Hollywood

by Michael Gallantz

from Jump Cut, no. 22, May 1980, pp. 3-4
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

A rainbow of bars fills the screen; the soundtrack is a steady high-pitched tone. It's confusing for a second. Then the camera moves back to reveal the chaos of a television news control room: the bars and tone used to monitor color and sound are on the preview screen of the control panel, where they soon give way to the pretty face of Kimberly Wells, excellently played by Jane Fonda. Preparing for a remote broadcast, Wells is trying to get the attention of the men in the control room — "Is anyone listening to me?" she cries from her little video panel — but Mac, the manager, is busy with executive Don Jacovich (Peter Donat). They're commenting not on the story Wells is about to deliver but on the color and length of her hair: Would she cut it? "She'll do what we tell her to do." The moment Wells goes on the air she goes into her act. Her harried and irritated demeanor gives way to a bright and cheery smile, and finally we get to her news story — an item about singing messengers.

With this incisive sequence THE CHINA SYNDROME gets off to a lively start, and although it has a reputation as a movie about nuclear power, TV news is indeed the film's other major theme and target. Wells' struggle to be listened to and taken seriously, TV news' preference for entertainment over information, the controlling influence of the ratings, almost all the aspects of TV news later dealt with in the movie are touched on in the opening. Unfortunately, like the helium balloons Wells talks about in another of her non-news reports, THE CHINA SYNDROME takes off well but doesn't stay aloft long. Even more unfortunately, SYNDROME treats nuclear power with the same shallowness, flashiness, and manipulativeness that it exposes in the television medium.

THE CHINA SYNDROME is a disaster movie in the tradition of JAWS, EARTHQUAKE, AIRPORT, or THE TOWERING INFERNO. And for pacing, rhythm, character development, and sheer entertainment value, JAWS beats it hands down. What saves THE CHINA SYNDROME from being judged by this comparison is the fact that it is one of Hollywood's rare attempts to take on a controversial issue. Indeed, nuclear power is a deadly serious subject, but the question to ask is whether THE CHINA SYNDROME contributes to the struggle against nuclear power or exploits it. Those who have debated this movie as a serious statement about nuclear power have focused on the question of whether the accident scenario as it occurs in the movie is realistic. The movie also contains a human and social scenario, though, and this is as important as the purely technological scenario of the accident. Sad to say, any close scrutiny brings out the inconsistency and implausibility of the human scenario and in particular of the character of Jack Godell, the man who spurs the drama into motion and rides it to its nearly apocalyptic conclusion.

Jack Lemmon's tour de force acting of this part is the only glue that holds the role together. Indeed it takes acting of his caliber to bring us along with this lower level manager who has spent his life in the service of nuclear power, but who is ready to make an armed seizure of his nuclear plant's control room the day after he finds out that the manufacturer didn't provide valid x-rays for all the welds on the cooling system pumps. Although the pump manufacturer lets him know his life will be in danger if he goes to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), he makes no attempt to dissemble his intentions nor does he warn Hector Salas (Daniel Valdez) when Hector goes to the NRC in his stead. While he only reluctantly gives Wells and cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) the x-rays, on the condition that he not be implicated, only a few hours later he doesn't hesitate to say yes to Wells' phone request that he bring the x rays to the NRC himself; and it's just a few minutes after that he seizes the plant. This solid nuclear engineer with a lifetime desk job takes off on a daring and resourceful high-speed chase. But, though he can fend off lengthy questioning by the NRC, he falls into babbling incoherence at the first question before a TV camera.

If Godell is a man on the brink, how can he be a fully credible authority on nuclear power? On the other hand, if he has the knowledge and integrity that at other times the film wants to attribute to him, are we to take his complete confidence in the plant prior to his reading of the x-rays to mean that it had previously been safe or that without deliberate malfeasance, like that of the firm in charge of inspecting the pumps, nuclear power is safe? Either way the film's case against nuclear power is weakened.

One response to such criticism is to point out that, after all, the film is a thriller. From this perspective, one might argue that SYNDROME makes the strongest case it can within the limits imposed by the demands of a mass appeal genre. Curiously, though, some of the very flaws that diminish the effectiveness of the film as an indictment of nuclear power also lessen its punch as a thriller.

In the best thrillers, the logic of the plot meshes with the logic of the characters; however much we may know that the genre has plot conventions, the plot also flows from and helps develop the characters. SYNDROME shamelessly manipulates the Godell character for the sake of the plot. We need a chase, a dramatic denouement, even a menacing act of violence to heighten tension prior to the Godell chase, so Godell must oblige us by the appropriate actions and inactions.

A more important root of the weakness of the Godell character, though, is thematic. With its unraveling of a network of evil that extends from the board offices of California Gas and Electric to a construction contracting company to the floor of a nuclear plant and back up to the executive suites of a TV station, CHINA SYNDROME might have been in the tradition of film noir. It isn't; and, of course, in itself that's no criticism; but CHINA SYNDROME is not only not noir, it's not even gray. The best thrillers, like Hitchcock's, show good and evil intertwined in surprising and ambivalent ways. In CHINA SYNDROME the most obvious candidate for a morally ambiguous role would have been Godell. Choosing instead to make Godell a totally good person whose life is thoroughly bound up with a totally evil institution, the filmmakers exchanged ambiguity and ambivalence for the contradictions and incoherence outlined above.

Good individuals in evil institutions: one person's goodness leads to his destruction, but the other lives to fight the forces that destroyed him — and to step a few rungs up the career ladder while she's at it. The implausibility of the human scenario in THE CHINA SYNDROME reflects the distortions of a broader social scenario. The Karen Silkwood case is one of the sources for the movie. Silkwood also discovered evidence of falsified quality control data, and like Hector in the movie, fell victim to a supposed accident as someone rammed her car off the road from behind while she was on her way to deliver the evidence to the press. Silkwood was a radical woman blue-collar worker and trade union organizer with a long history of union organizing and struggle against her atomic power employer. She received much harassment from the company before she was finally killed. In THE CHINA SYNDROME, though, the person who spills the beans on the company and immediately gets threatened because of it is not only a conservative male professional but is actually part of management, a shift supervisor.

THE CHINA SYNDROME exaggerates some things while concealing others: it almost eliminates workers as either victims of or fighters against nuclear power while it makes heroes of highly paid professionals. Of course, some nuclear engineers have defected from the industry; and this has certainly been helpful to the fight against nuclear power. Far from being attacked by company goons, though, or from needing to resort to terrorism to get media coverage, these professionals are alive, well, listened to, and in the case of the three former G.E. engineers who formed the thriving MHB Associates, technical consultants on THE CHINA SYNDROME.

While nuclear workers hardly exist in the world of THE CHINA SYNDROME, the mass movement against nuclear power might as well not exist. In the film it's represented by some ludicrously ineffective demonstrators who make symbolic moral protests while the real action is taking place elsewhere. What's especially curious about this is that the anti-nuclear movement has been startlingly effective both in mustering and presenting technical data in support of its case and in mounting large and militant demonstrations. By belittling the real sources of opposition to nuclear power, THE CHINA SYNDROME makes the reporter played by Fonda more heroic. Along with the honest engineer, the courageous newsperson takes on a glory far beyond that he or she would receive if the role of workers and demonstrators were accurately presented.

Even the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, often taken to show the prescience of the movie, in fact only underlines its limitations. At Three Mile Island, as in THE CHINA SYNDROME, a pump and cooling system failure compounded by human error created a situation where a meltdown became a possibility; the company in both cases denied that what had occurred could even be called an accident. At Three Mile Island, though, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission conducted an investigation, which though subject to a good deal of important criticism from nuclear scientists not tied to the industry, was still far from the total cover-up portrayed in SYNDROME. The media gave the accident maximum coverage; some elements of the media even asked difficult and penetrating enough questions to keep both the utility and the NRC on the spot. Utility workers faced the greatest dangers of anyone, and speed-up and forced overtime turned out to be probable contributing causes of the accident. Finally, needless to say, no members of management defected as a result of the accident; nor were any of those who investigated the accident assassinated or threatened with assassination.

Surprisingly, though, the reality of Three Mile Island most exposes the inadequacy of THE CHINA SYNDROME's technological scenario, on which its strength as a dramatization of the dangers of nuclear power is supposed to rest. Although anyone even vaguely familiar with nuclear power realizes that accidents like those in SYNDROME pose at least a potential danger of low-level radiation leaks, SYNDROME ignores this danger to focus exclusively on the ultimate danger of meltdown. By doing so it ignores one of the more immediate dangers of nuclear power and leaves the door open for those who will say that even in the extreme circumstances depicted in the movie, the back-up systems did work. At Three Mile Island, too, the defenders of nuclear power say that the prevention of a meltdown even under the dangerous circumstances present there proves after all how unlikely meltdown is.

The most damning and controversial aspect of Three Mile Island (TMI) is the danger of the radiation released by the accident, radiation which continues to be released to this day. It is this aspect of TMI that the media paid least attention to, preferring the more sensational possibility of a meltdown; and it is this that many radiation experts are accusing the NRC of covering up. By showing a nuclear accident while only faintly hinting at this radiation danger, SYNDROME contributes to this cover-up and foreshadows not just TMI itself but also the media's approach to TMI.

THE CHINA SYNDROME appeared at a time when a growing political movement against the economically strapped nuclear power industry was already receiving large public support. Because of the faltering situation of nuclear power and the growing strength of the anti-nuclear movement, nuclear power is an accessible target for the media. It is this context that enables a film like THE CHINA SYNDROME to be produced and to be successful. SYNDROME's exaggeration of the power of the nuclear industry to control the media and its belittling of the effectiveness of the anti-nuclear movement are two sides of the same coin. Both not only make Kimberly Wells and Richard Adams seem heroic but by implying the existence of a world where criticism of nuclear power is still taboo they also make the film itself seem more daring than it really is. In reality THE CHINA SYNDROME rides the coattails of an anti-nuclear consciousness which is doing more to help THE CHINA SYNDROME and its producers than such a distorted and superficial work as THE CHINA SYNDROME can possibly do for the anti-nuclear movement, much less for any broader social understanding.

None of this is to deny the fact that the twist of fate that brought us TMI only two weeks after SYNDROME's opening put the movie in the position of bringing even more publicity and attention to the accident than would otherwise have been the case. The movie and the anti-nuclear movement's legitimate short-term capitalization on it made it impossible instead of simply very difficult for the nuclear industry to sweep TMI under the rug. Statements and actions by some of the film's principals underline just how fortuitous this was. Anticipating a hit, the film's distributor, Columbia Pictures, had spent four to five million dollars on pre-opening publicity for the film, an amount almost equivalent to the six-million-dollar price tag of the movie itself. At the same time the ads made no mention of nuclear power, and all the film's spokespeople denied that the film was an attack on nuclear power. Producer Michael Douglas merely tried "to make a good thriller," he said. Even Fonda followed suit: "If I intended to attack nuclear energy, I would have made a documentary."

These statements seem less disingenuous than one might suspect. After TMI, when SYNDROME's box office, benefiting from the catastrophe, didn't take its expected third weekend drop, Douglas and Columbia made it clear that, however much they might have been pleased with their increased profits, they were even more surprised and frightened by the politicization of the film that TMI had inadvertently brought about. "We're all very wary of capitalizing in any sense on a tragedy. We will do anything to stay clean," said Douglas, canceling his scheduled Johnny Carson appearance. At the same time Lemmon backed out of a CBS News special, and the entire CHINA SYNDROME publicity campaign came to a screeching halt. Only Fonda, to her credit, took advantage of the political manna that the film had briefly become because of its coincidental linkage with TMI.

Still, nuclear power is not the whole story of THE CHINA SYNDROME. It has a feminist streak in its portrayal of the way Wells' bosses treat her — as a "pretty little head" that couldn't possibly have a nose for news. While this rings true and is handled sensitively enough, it's not exactly path-breaking in 1979. Moreover, even this feminist streak is somewhat ambiguous. While it's certainly believable that Wells would be reluctant to jeopardize her job and defy the system, much of what she does in the film involves tagging along behind the initiative of her male friend Richard. Worse yet is the accidental consequence of her attempt to do her supervisor's bidding by retrieving the film that Richard was resourceful enough to steal.

The most important secondary theme of the movie, though, is its critique of television news. This is the note on which the movie begins and the film gives this subject almost as much attention as nuclear power itself. In contrast to its treatment of nuclear power, THE CHINA SYNDROME's critique of TV is for the most part effectively understated. It touches on both the ways in which TV manipulates its employees, whom it expects not so much to inform the audience as to perform for it.

An interesting aspect of SYNDROME is the way it links television and nuclear power, these two so seemingly different institutions; and the link made in the movie is quite suggestive. Both television and nuclear power are new technologies whose rise to prominence is an important part of post-World War II history. Both are technologies which critics have attacked as dangerous in themselves, arguing that the very choice of technology can be a political decision. Both lend themselves to centralized control. And both are subject to a government regulatory agency, an agency, which in both cases is accused of being controlled by the very industry it is supposed to regulate.

Much of THE CHINA SYNDROME is set in control rooms, either the control room of CG&E's nuclear power plant or the control room of the TV station Wells works for. The very term control room is suggestive of the centralization of power. And the similarity in appearance of the two different types of control rooms, both dominated by panels with a dazzling array of screens, dials, and indicators, suggests the mystifying high technology common to both industries. The film shows both industries subject to a political control that overrules those most familiar with day-to-day operations. The TV executive Jacovich overrules Wells and her associates by forbidding the broadcast of their nuclear footage for political reasons. CG&Es higher-ups have their political reasons for overruling Godell's recommendation that the plant not go back on line right away. In both the TV and the nuclear power world, things go wrong in spite of the advanced technology. The movie shows both easily slipping into crises, then pulling out of them only by a hair's breadth – although, of course, the TV crises are crises only in terms of TV's need to appear infallible before its audience.

In fact, this very need to appear infallible is common to both industries. In the film, nuclear power's need to call an accident an "event" has its comic TV parallel in the opening sequence, when Wells announces that her cameraman is off "taking a leak" just as she is about to go on the air: TV cannot tolerate letting its audience know that things go wrong backstage any more than can nuclear, power. Finally, TV and nuclear power connect in yet another way, a way at least hinted at in the film. In the movie, one nuclear employee asks rhetorically how a protester expects to power her hair dryer without nuclear plants. Since the burgeoning of unnecessary electric appliances like hair dryers is one rationale for the supposed need for nuclear power, it's only a short jump to realize that TV itself, including, of course, the trivia that Wells has to broadcast, is one cause of the increasing power demand on which the nuclear industry bases the case for its own necessity.

The television story, then, is something of a comic subplot that parallels the main drama of nuclear power in THE CHINA SYNDROME. While we have no way of knowing what the movie would have looked like with Mike Gray's original screenplay or T.S. Cook's first set of revisions, we do know that it was Bridges who wrote in the whole TV story after he and Fonda signed on in the later stages of the film's planning. In fact, supposedly neutral on the issue of nuclear power itself, Bridges says he reversed his original rejection of the script only when he got excited about the idea of intertwining the TV story with the already written nuclear one.

Certainly the greater effectiveness of the TV story seems to reflect this difference in directorial enthusiasm. The handling of the TV story also suggests a final clarification of the film's ideology. The parallelism of the two stories continues into their conclusions; both are compromises. The meltdown and, apparently, all harm to the community are prevented, however narrowly. Likewise, although it nearly misses, the TV news does finally get the story through.

The parallelism isn't complete, though, because the difference between Godell and Wells' fates is the difference between a thoroughly corrupt institution and one capable of recognizing its own mistakes and exposing the corruption of others. Certainly this difference has some validity to it, but it also has ideological implications. More than a year after the opening of the movie, a conservative-liberal coalition is in the process of realizing a long held goal: obliterating the lessons of Vietnam and Watergate. Among other things the lessons of Vietnam imply a model of change in which the major impetus for change comes from below. One effect of the anti-war movement was to provoke the media into a more aggressive and independent role than it had played in the earlier years of the war. The anti-war movement also forced moves by Nixon that ultimately led to Watergate; and it was a reinvigorated post-Vietnam media that contributed so much to Watergate's denouement. If, however, Watergate were abstracted from the anti-war movement that was its progenitor, it would suggest a quite different mode of change, change led by independent media heroes. As conservatives and liberals unite to exorcise Vietnam and Watergate together, THE CHINA SYNDROME seems to foreshadow aspects of both the new consensus and the dissent from it. "Remember Watergate," it seems to cry while it turns a blind eye on Vietnam.

This said, it's hard to fault the movie's final sequence, which encapsulates all that is good in the film. We move from Ventana, where the nuclear drama concludes, back to the TV studio, where the shaken anchorman gets his orders from the control room, "Go straight to the commercial." Then, as one video panel shows Wells and Adams in an emotional embrace, the "on air" screen gets a commercial for — microwave ovens; and the film ends as it began with bars and tone. A good film about television, THE CHINA SYNDROME compounds the limitations of its overall social perspective by leaving unanswered the question of whether a serious examination of nuclear power is, for Hollywood at least, still too hot to handle.