The China Syndrome
The genre syndrome

by Doug Zwick

from Jump Cut, no. 22, May 1980, pp. 5-6
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

Viewing the recent spate of political films, one becomes aware of the difficulty Hollywood has had in dealing with contemporary social issues. The producers want to capture the attention of the concerned public and even the liberal left, but the overwhelming class bias of the industry works against any attempt to get at the source of the problems they depict. Still, films with apparently political motivations do emerge. One of the most successful of these has been THE CHINA SYNDROME.

A loose, self-styled collective, including the stars, under the aegis of Columbia Pictures, made the film. It was funded more or less routinely because of the stars' proven box-office draw. Members of the group have been politically active in the movement against the war and in their outspoken opposition to nuclear power.

The group collectively revised the script to maximize the entertainment value and, secondarily, the political impact of the film. During production, the stars went to great length to assert that the film was primarily an entertainment and not meant to be politically heavy. But a film made by a group of anti-nuclear celebrities and dealing with nuclear power could hardly be received as "apolitical," and the film's anti-nuclear intentions were grasped by the public immediately.

In order to succeed politically, a film must deal with an issue on all levels: in form as well as content. The Cahiers du Cinéma authors have suggested the importance of this critical attitude on the part of filmmakers toward the ideological framework within which they are working:

"Once we realize that it is the nature of the system to turn the cinema into an instrument of ideology, we can see that the filmmaker's first task is to show up the cinema's so-called 'depiction of reality.' If he can do so there is the chance that he will be able to disrupt or even sever the connection between the cinema and its ideological function. The vital distinction between films today is whether they do this or whether they do not." (1)

THE CHINA SYNDROME does not. It is a movie made by show-biz kids in their own image. The film draws heavily upon television stylization, and its plot centers on the heroic attempt of a female media star to publicize a nuclear accident. Local TV news is depicted in a sympathetic, even glamorous, light and, despite the occasional use of irony, little attempt is made to seriously criticize it. By casting Jane Fonda in a heroic role within the context of television news, the filmmakers actually validate TV as a progressive force in society — and this becomes a central message of the film.

The filmmakers sabotage their own anti-nuclear argument because they adopt the film industry's entertainment über alles ideology and stay strictly within the confines of the disaster-thriller format. The film is strongly related to such movies as AIRPORT and TOWERING INFERNO, and its political arguments are confined within the limits of that style. This becomes a major obstruction to its anti-nuclear theme. Audiences have learned the dangers of air travel and skyscrapers but have learned to live with them quite easily. Because it presents its story in terms which carry a lot of contradictory and incomplete messages, THE CHINA SYNDROME — for all its terror — trivializes the arguments of the anti-nuclear movement.


All too easily, the movie can be shrugged off as a shrill tirade of paranoia, largely because it relies on disaster movie shock value. In this way it plays into the hands of the nuclear industry's attempts to undermine the antinuclear movements credibility.

THE CHINA SYNDROME was produced and released in a volatile climate of growing public fears about nuclear safety coupled with the nuclear industry's own related doubts concerning its own economic feasibility. The ten-year licensing process had discouraged many potential customers and only two new plant orders had been placed nationwide in 1978. Had even one of these been lost, it would have been a major blow to the shaky industry. The film, therefore, did have the potential to be politically effective.

Its no surprise, then, that in the months just before release date, a major campaign was launched to discredit the film. Film critics received unsolicited information packages from a host of groups within the nuclear family, including the Atomic Industrial Forum, the Edison Electrical Institute (a utilities trade association), and Scientists and Engineers for Secure Energy. The intentions of the industry centered on protecting a public image of infallibility and safety.

The industry tried to convince the media that the fears raised in the movie were groundless and rather silly by emphasizing the films adherence to the conventions of the disaster genre.

"It is a good thriller … [whose] oversimplifications and exaggerations can be seen as requirements of the thriller genre." (2)

Despite Three Mile Island, the industry has continued this refrain. Recently, Fortune Magazine, for example, not only dismissed the fears raised by THE CHINA SYNDROME, it actually used the movie as a defense of nuclear safety.

"In some ways, what happened at Three Mile Island on March 28 can be seen in a positive light. The mistakes and malfunctions … were far more dangerous than the near accident portrayed in … THE CHINA SYNDROME. Yet the immediate consequences to human life, health and property were apparently negligible. Even the worst imaginable consequences … were far less apocalyptic than the doomsday possibilities of death for many millions conjured up in the film." (3)

By reducing the nuclear issue to a single plant with problems, the film falls right into line with the major media's treatment of the Three Mile Island accident "of March 28" as an isolated incident. The film excludes reference to any of the nuclear dangers other than the disaster of total core meltdown. There is no mention of plant workers' daily exposure to low-level radiation and no mention of the routine venting and leakage of contaminated steam and water. These are the dangers which the public has been misled into accepting. And it is in the dissemination of critical information in this realm that the film could have been the most effective politically.


Just as the dangers of nuclear power are reduced to the threat of a single disaster, the political dynamics within the film are reduced to the struggle between heroic individuals and specific villains. The film ignores or belittles the impact of collective action. Instead of an organized grassroots anti-nuclear movement, the movie presents a bunch of "no-nukes kooks" straight out of the media stereotype films. Similarly, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, long active in the fight for radiation-related worker safety, is ignored completely. Although the murder of union organizer Karen Silkwood is clearly referred to, the scriptwriters have converted her to a male media worker. By trivializing the very real importance of grassroots action, the film discourages its audience from active political involvement.

The entire industry is painted in shades of villainy. But the stage is set for a melodramatic battle of individuals, rather than the political struggle of public versus corporate interests, when the individual financial motives of the utility board chairman are isolated as the root of the problem. The individual nature of the battle becomes visually apparent in the stare down between engineer Jack Godell and the board chairman near the end of the film.

The dramatic impact of the film rests on the heroic actions of an elite group. To include any notion of collective action would have been destructive to this central dynamic. Adherence to this heroic-action plot formula necessitated the depreciation of systematic exclusion of the real ways in which people can take political action. For this reason it is difficult to reconcile the film with its antinuclear reputation.

The charismatic leader of the heroic struggle is, of course, TV reporter Kimberly Wells.


Jane Fonda has been a symbol of the myth of radical politics within the Hollywood feature, and recently she has become an icon of the New Woman. This is the result of her off-screen, but media-oriented, political activity. She carries a public image which preconditions the viewer to read a film along certain lines. In this way the Fonda image actually becomes a part of the content of the film, and casting her in a lead role, therefore, becomes a political operation in itself. Her presence helps to hide the contradictory ideological information the film may carry.

THE CHINA SYNDROME began as an all-male script, which Fonda and Director James Bridges revised to include Fonda in the lead role. The result is a partially overhauled version of a basically sexist plot formula. And although the film has been seen as a step forward for women's roles in the cinema, the same step was also taken thirty years ago in the Howard Hawks comedy HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940). In that film also, the role of a male reporter was converted to facilitate the inclusion of a major female star. This is not to be criticized, but it is not enough. Like the earlier film, THE CHINA SYNDROME's "acceptance of traditional myths of femininity and masculinity frustrates the apparent message of meaningful change." (4)

Kimberly Wells represents a woman in transition, struggling against the blatant sexism of the TV establishment. We know this the moment we see her because of Fonda's status as an icon of the New Woman. We proceed to read our own understandings of the liberation process into Wells' every gesture.

Yet her advancement within the station and popularity with news viewers (as shown in the workers' bar scene) is based strictly on her physical appearance. The station management speaks of her as a product and a prop. In the final seconds of the film, the station managers off-screen voice pronounces, "She did a damn good job — not that I'm surprised." He speaks paternalistically over an image of Wells sobbing into the arms of a male coworker, while Godell's best friend stands by stoically. The message that comes across negates women's liberation: Kimberly Wells is too emotional to handle hard news.


The function of stars in the media (and of intellectuals in the revolution) has been explored by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin in their film LETTER TO JANE. Godard and Gorin examine a news photo of Jane Fonda in Hanoi, and there are unavoidable parallels between that photo and THE CHINA SYNDROME.

A major part of LETTER TO JANE is a semiological analysis of Fonda's facial expression of sad and attentive listening. They trace the history of this essentially acted expression (Godard labels it "the expression of an expression") to Henry Fonda in YOUNG MR. LINCOLN and THE GRAPES OF WRATH, and to a number of other public figures. For Godard, the expression consistently tells us how much it knows (emotionally) but never tells us what it knows (analytically). It is therefore very useful in the media for masking or altering reality because the emotive quality of the expression fends off substantive questioning.

In THE CHINA SYNDROME, an edge of tension has been added to this expression (making it somewhat more active), and it becomes the "look" of the entire movie. Interestingly, Wells is shown fabricating this expression (as a cutaway shot) after a filmed interview has been completed. This is an ironic moment in the film and perhaps a look back at Godard as well.

"In the Hanoi news photo: There is the direct contradiction between what we see — Fonda listening — and what we read in the text below the photo — Fonda 'questioning the inhabitants of Hanoi.' It is not a simple mistake; it is prime evidence of the focus of the photo, which is Fonda, not North Vietnam or the Vietnamese." (5)

Similarly, the photo has been physically focused and framed so that Fonda is sharp, clear, and facing the camera, while the Vietnamese are fuzzy and obscured.

THE CHINA SYNDROME is ostensibly about nuclear power, yet the real focus is on the media and its stars while the details of the nuclear industry and its workers are kept vague or excluded altogether. Much effort is put into showing the intricate workings of TV news, while even the broadest analysis of the nuclear industry is strikingly absent.

The result is the glorification of the television news and the major media in general. It is a perfect example of what Godard and Gorin suggest in LETTER TO JANE: that the stars of the media would do well to be more aware of the use to which they are put in the capitalist ideological apparatus. Glorification of TV news may not have been the intention of the group who made this film, yet it comes across as the strongest message.


The Cahiers du Cinéma describe THE CHINA SYNDROME well when they state that a film can set out to make a political statement yet fail to "effectively criticize the ideological system in which [it is] embedded because it unquestioningly adopts its language and imagery." (6)

During production, the filmmakers agreed to use TV-style super-realistic production values to create a melodramatically tight, politically potent film. "You won't be able to distinguish our presentation of the news from your own evening viewing," co-star Michael Douglas is quoted as saying in Reddy News, an energy trade publication. (7)

But television realism, with its reliance on external appearances, superficial coverage, and dramatically subjugated analysis does not deal well with complex or economic issues. And although the filmmakers succeeded in creating a super-real look, they were unable to overcome the difficulty of fitting hard information into it.

Although the filmmakers used TV stylization and melodrama consciously, they were not able to turn it back on its origins. We have already seen how this problem crippled the film's presentation of nuclear politics, and it similarly slants the film's depiction of broadcast news. The filmmakers lend credence to real TV news, by showing it being successful within the movie.

In order to facilitate the plot and place Fonda in a glamorous role, the film distorts the reality of television news coverage. It suggests that if anything is really going on, the local TV news crew will be out there digging, and it won't be long before the story is out. In reality, the alternative media, not the commercial TV stations, have been instrumental in publicizing such issues as nuclear power. In this way the film endorses the myth that the dominant media operate in the public interest. And by setting Fonda in a commercial media role, the film ignores the alternative, community media, and excludes yet another of the real forces in antinuclear politics.

The film also presents a false picture of how the media are controlled. That this control is a systematic ruling class function is one reason that Fonda and other politically aware stars have not had more political influence on the films in which they star. Yet THE CHINA SYNDROME depicts Wells and even her production crew determining the content of the news broadcast. It shows TV as a tool which certain dynamic individuals can use or reform at will and suggests that there are no economic forces keeping television the way it is.


Because of its optimistic conclusion with no real damage done, THE CHINA SYNDROME operates as a "drama of reassurance." (8) The conclusion is carefully scripted so that, in a single dramatic climax and resolution, victory over sexism, corruption, and the nuclear danger has been won. Our heroine gets a pat on the back from the station management while the viewer relaxes with the secure feeling that the system works.

And yes, the system does work. The political intentions of these filmmakers have been rendered safe for use as a commodity by the entertainment industry.


1. Jean-Luc Commolli and Jean Narboni, "Cinema/ Ideology/Criticism," Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 216, 1969.

2. Scientists and Engineers for Secure Energy, quoted in the Bay Guardian, April 6, 1979, p. 5.

3. "Edmond Haltermayer, "Nuclear Power After Three Mile Island," Fortune Magazine, May 7, 1979.

4. Tom Powers, "Screwball Liberation, HIS GIRL FRIDAY," Jump Cut, No. 17, 1978.

5. "James Monaco, The New Wave (New York: Oxford Press, 1976), p. 247.

6. Ibid., 1.

7. Ibid., 2.

8. James Linton, "But Its Only a Movie," Jump Cut, No. 17, 1978.