The China Syndrome
Film + Reality = Awareness

by Gary Weimberg

from Jump Cut, no. 24-25, March 1981, pp. 57-58
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

There is little doubt that U.S. pro-nuclear forces are on the defensive. No longer are nuclear power plants being rushed into construction. Much of the current anti-nuclear struggle revolves around licensing plants near completion as well as those already in operation. Anti-nuclear power groups themselves are flourishing as never before. Their demonstrations, which in the past attracted only hundreds, by the summer of 1979 began to attract tens of thousands.

Journalists, traditional oracles of the public heart, supply us with a facile explanation of this tremendous public outcry. People's  politicization in the U.S. is the simple political fallout from the radiation accidentally released at Three Mile Island. The film THE CHINA SYNDROME's release two weeks before the nuclear accident is dismissed as an interesting coincidence.

For the audiences who have seen the film, the horrifying harmony between film and news has created a unique context for THE CHINA SYNDROME. When watching it, we cannot help thinking of Three Mile Island. In this way the film has entered the realm of explicit politics. Regardless of the intentions of the filmmakers, Three Mile Island has forced audiences to become aware of the inevitable connection between film and politics.

While the effect of Three Mile Island on how we view THE CHINA SYNDROME has at least been mentioned, the film's influence on public attitudes toward Three Mile Island (and nuclear power in general) has largely been ignored. The news media have fragmented these two events: THE CHINA SYNDROME is fiction and news coverage of it is "soft" news. But Three Mile Island is "real" and news coverage of it is "hard" news. There are structural explanations for a newsperson to do this, but would any other individual witnessing these two events ignore the connections between the two? THE CHINA SYNDROME was made to demonstrate certain dangers, and Three Mile Island confirmed the existence of those dangers. To the extent that the U.S. public has been politicized, it has been from these two nearly simultaneous events' combined effects.

Mere chance determined the order of events; THE CHINA SYNDROME occurred first and Three Mile Island immediately afterwards. Yet the effect of this ordering is significant. Had these two events occurred in any other order, the political effect on the U.S. public would be vastly different. We can easily imagine four possibilities of how these two elements could have occurred:

  1. Three Mile Island could have occurred first, THE CHINA SYNDROME released later.
  2. THE CHINA SYNDROME could have been released, but no subsequent nuclear accident taken place.
  3. Three Mile Island nuclear accident could have occurred, but no subsequent film dramatizing the dangers of nuclear power made.
  4. The actual sequence of events — the film, followed by the accident.

Let us examine each of these to see their potential political impact.


Had Three Mile Island occurred and then THE CHINA SYNDROME released, the difference in public attitudes would be immense. Each event's context would change. Most importantly, the film would not be a prophetic statement but merely a dramatization of a contemporary real-life event. In the recent past, the TV/film audience has been deluged with barely disguised fictionalizations of contemporary events, most notably an unending parade of Watergate-related fictionalizations. Since they portray corruption in government but go no further than portrayal, corruption becomes a basis for dramatic tension, not political tension.

In fact, these fictionalizations not only fail to politicize, they actually de-politicize. If capitalism's social problems are mirrored in fiction, those problems gain a sense of inevitability. When corrupt governments and nuclear accidents plague even our imagination, it becomes harder to formulate any sort of alternative to the status quo.

Clearly this genre is not based on political but commercial analysis. By co-opting popular public issues, the entertainment industry can enlarge its audience and profits. Rather than address the public's need for solutions to societal ills, the entertainment industry chooses to exploit that need.

There is an important difference here between most contemporary fictionalizations with commercial intentions and the minority with political intentions (for example, STATE OF SEIGE, BATTLE OF ALGIERS). The critique here applies only to those with commercial intent. Unfortunately, THE CHINA SYNDROME must be included among them. Although it is vastly more political than say, GUYANA: CULT OF THE DAMNED, THE CHINA SYNDROME avoids making any direct link between nuclear energy and the capitalist political system. When looking at THE CHINA SYNDROME by itself (see Case 2 below), we find much to suggest that although the filmmakers considered a political analysis important, politics took a back seat to narrative and commercial considerations. Had the film been released after Three Mile Island, it would appear entirely commercially motivated. As such it would fail to politicize.


Let us imagine instead that no nuclear accident happened, merely the release of THE CHINA SYNDROME. Again the difference is tremendous. Without the context of Three Mile Island, the film inhabits a realm similar to most Hollywood films — remote from social issues. True, it would be more relevant than THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, but both would be virtually equidistant from political action.

In isolation, the ambiguities in THE CHINA SYNDROME's political analysis become problematic. For example, the film itself never contradicts Jack Lemmon's statement in mid-film,

"There was no accident, the system works."

The only failures the film shows are those of individual human beings. We see the moral failures of the nuclear safety inspector and utility company president, as well as the political failure of Jack Lemmon, whose liberal ideology results only in his inarticulate death. However, machines in the film always function as planned. The primary cooling mechanism falls apart because of the safety inspector's corruption. Furthermore, as the primary cooling mechanism falls apart, the nuclear power plant's backup machinery prevents disaster while people stand helpless in passive fear.

Without Three Mile Island, this safety-in-technology attitude would pass by unquestioned — by the film and probably by the audience. Other valid questions raised by THE CHINA SYNDROME (such as the capitalist system's potential for individual corruption and large power companies' structural problems) would be eroded by the nuclear power industry's intensive counterpropaganda. Even before THE CHINA SYNDROME's release, the nuclear power industry began planning their campaign. A lengthy article in an energy industry trade magazine warned of the film's release. A pro-nuclear power trade organization sent press kits to virtually every reviewer in the country providing "facts" about how safe nuclear power was and how impossible the film's scenario was. And according to Bruce Gilbert, executive producer of THE CHINA SYNDROME, General Electric withdrew its sponsorship of the Barbara Walters Show because Walters was interviewing Jane Fonda.

The Three Mile Island accident prevented the nuclear industries' propaganda campaign from getting farther than this. Without Three Mile Island we can be sure that the pro-nuclear propaganda's volume and intensity would have vastly increased. Undoubtedly the nuclear industries would seize on film's fictional nature to further blunt the work's impact.

The accessible, Hollywood commercial style of the film works against its credibility. THE CHINA SYNDROME makes a number of crucial politically valid points, but it does so by smuggling these points into theater through the devices of a traditional thriller. Such devices have a social history of their own and have been used largely to paint reactionary views of society. Without the context of Three Mile Island, the film would be hard pressed to stand for anything other than an out-of-the-ordinary thriller.

By choosing to cloak its politics beneath the thrill of the chase, the film's producers reject appealing to the audience's intelligence. THE CHINA SYNDROME tries to persuade by using sensationalism. The result is a blend of contradictory elements. The film attempts to teach, but it simultaneously denigrates the audience's intelligence by the device chosen to teach with. It is only Three Mile Island's overwhelming impact that makes this contradiction irrelevant.


Imagine no CHINA SYNDROME, only the Three Mile Island nuclear accident.

Assuredly many aspects of the disaster would be unchanged, CHINA SYNDROME or not. Three Mile Island would be a major news item and a significant educational weapon to aid the fight against nuclear power. Certainly Three Mile Island would have inspired the same fear and politicization on the local level in Pennsylvania. But on a national level, it seems clear that Three Mile Island would only provide information against nuclear energy, not motivation to protest against it. I say this because without THE CHINA SYNDROME, Three Mile Island would only be a news media event.

There is a very basic difference between news media events and real life events. Real life events happen to us. Usually we can immediately see what is happening and how it affects us. A news media event is a real event that we perceive solely through the news media. News media events happen to other people. News media events almost never affect us directly, most affect us slowly and nearly invisibly, and some news media events never affect us at all. Yet somehow we are expected to accept newspaper and television coverage of an event as the same thing as a real life event. The argument I am making here is that there is only the most tenuous connection between most people and news media events. News media events are abstract images which we have been socialized to accept as true.

Without THE CHINA SYNDROME, Three Mile Island would only be a news media event. As a news media event, it would be as relevant and as radicalizing as the New York City blackout and looting. Note that both events were born in power industry failures, and both directly affected the lives of millions on the East Coast of the United States. Both have resulted in industrial promises that it will never happen again. And (without THE CHINA SYNDROME) both would be perceived by the vast majority in the United States solely through the news media.

The point of this comparison is to justify saying that without THE CHINA SYNDROME, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident would fail to have a politicizing effect. Since this position goes directly against current explanations for the sudden popularity of the anti-nuclear movement, led me add one more argument.

The benefits the U.S. economy receives from its international supremacy masks the conflict inherent in the capitalist system within this country. The difficulty in politicizing the U.S. public occurs largely because of the effectiveness of that masking. Even events which expose direct contradictions in U.S. society often fail to have any political result. The experience of gas lines and the resulting rise in gas prices has caused little or no direct protest. When a first-hand experience of the magnitude of the recent gasoline crisis fails to provoke political activity, it seems foolish to expect that media coverage of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident would provoke large-scale politicization. To explain this politicization, we need to consider more than just the Three Mile Island accident. We need to know why the public responded so massively to this particular event.


In looking at the actual sequence of events, THE CHINA SYNDROME first and Three Mile Island later, we can see that the film set up a unique context within which the public reacted to Three Mile Island. It was not necessary for everyone to actually see the film first and then hear about the accident for this to be true. The fact that the general public knew that the movie preceded the actual accident is sufficient.

This ordering of film and reality heightened the impact of each in several ways. First, the public was made aware that a potential problem existed before it became a crisis. People don't like to feel stupid, and they don't like to mistrust the world around them. For the significant number of Americans who do not accept that capitalism is inherently conflictual, the two desires just mentioned lead to the following belief. If something is wrong either (1) people should be able to see that for themselves or (2) someone should tell them. For these people — and I believe that they are in the majority in the United States — the fact that THE CHINA SYNDROME came out before Three Mile Island demonstrated both that we knew the dangers of nuclear energy and that the utility companies were ignoring those dangers. When the actual accident occurred, it therefore became clear to large numbers of Americans that something about nuclear energy was "wrong."

At the same time as people began to see something "wrong" about nuclear power, the chilling accuracy of THE CHINA SYNDROME's scenario convinced people that the anti-nuclear groups had been "right." It predicted not only the potential dangers within a nuclear power plant, but it also foreshadowed the power companies' dishonest response and unsuccessful attempts to explain away the danger. The film's accuracy destroyed the credibility of pro-nuclear scientists. Anti-nuclear groups' predictive powers were far more accurate than the industry-linked scientists'. By preceding Three Mile Island, the film totally destroyed the status quo's first line of defense — "expert" testimony.

THE CHINA SYNDROME's advance warning of a potential problem indicates a function which the news media consistently refuse to fulfill. The news media avoid in-depth analysis and instead concentrate on horrors and catastrophes, the drama of which can be exploited to increase audiences. The news media portray the world as an unending series of crises, their format presenting each event as isolated and unconnected to any other. By fragmenting information, the media prevent anticipation of social problems and suggest that the problems depicted could not have been avoided. We are therefore encouraged only to respond passively to the world. By anticipating Three Mile Island, THE CHINA SYNDROME publicly refuted the news media's assumptions and went on to suggest that an active response to events would be more appropriate.

This interaction between Three Mile Island and THE CHINA SYNDROME, where one cancels the deficiencies of the other, indicates why there has been such a powerful response to their co-occurrence. In the same way as our two separate eyes combine their vision to give us depth perception, these two separate events combine and portray reality more persuasively than either one alone.

THE CHINA SYNDROME, as fiction, operates on a suspension of disbelief. We willingly choose to believe that what we are watching is true. This pretense of reality becomes so strong that it takes an intense effort to remind ourselves that we are, in fact, watching a movie. The film may not be real, but the intense emotional response to the film is a very real experience. When we leave the theater, the it's-only-a-film awareness returns, but the memory of experiencing those emotions is intact. In this sense, THE CHINA SYNDROME and fictional films in general are first-hand experiences. During the film, we actually witness the tragedy of a man being shot to death while trying to prevent nuclear disaster.

News, on the other hand, operates on the human bias toward belief. (The concept of bias toward belief comes from 4 Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander, to whom I am grateful for this insight.) That which we perceive, we believe. When we see the news, we tend to accept that it is real. Clearly, however, news is not real. It is the distant account of an event presented by a non-objective observer in a false tone of objectivity. Television is the image of an actor or actress reading that account. The best actor is Walter Cronkite, specifically because of his talent in projecting believability.

The problems for news media in this regard are significant. Contradictions frequently arise which threaten crucial believability. We have already noted that news media events are different from real life events. This difference indicates that even when people consciously accept a media event as "true" or "real," it frequently remains emotionally "unreal."

Another problem with the believability of the news is the phenomenon of selective perception. Selective perception is the label for the human tendency to remember only information that is interesting or related to one's life or that one agrees with. Many items reported on in the news are thus ignored or not even perceived. These events become unreal; they do not even exist.

When we combine the impact of THE CHINA SYNDROME (fiction) and Three Mile Island (news media event), we find an incredible balance. THE CHINA SYNDROME is not true. It operates on a suspension of disbelief and is perceived as emotionally "real." Three Mile Island is "real." Its media portrayal operates on the bias toward belief yet is emotionally perceived as "unreal."

The resulting synthesis of the two is a deeply convincing portrayal of reality. THE CHINA SYNDROME raises for each viewer an individual sense of fear of nuclear power. This emotional response prevents Three Mile Island from appearing as only a news media event; it provides a context for news of the accident to be relevent to one's own life. In turn, the actual incident at Three Mile Island confirms the individual response's validity and raises it to the level of a general concern.

In the same way that the interaction between THE CHINA SYNDROME and Three Mile Island moves us from individual to general concern, the two events portray the problem of nuclear power on both an abstract and concrete level. THE CHINA SYNDROME raises the point in the abstract, demonstrating nuclear energy's potential dangers. Three Mile Island grounded that abstraction in reality and validated it. Not only did the accident demonstrate that the Three Mile Island Plant was dangerous but that the plant was dangerous in ways beyond anyone's expectations. The synthesis of these two events reflected the danger beyond one occurrence to illustrate the danger of all nuclear power plants.

These interactions between individual/general and abstract/concrete show us the dialectical relation between THE CHINA SYNDROME and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. Previously we have seen that a deeply convincing portrayal of reality results from the synthesis of these two elements. Now, however, we can see that this portrayal of reality is nothing short of an effective political education.

The process begins with THE CHINA SYNDROME. The film describes a seemingly abstract social problem while encouraging individuals to trust their own emotional response and let those emotions determine their attitude toward the problem. The Three Mile Island nuclear accident continues the education, providing concrete verification both of the abstract problem and of the individual's emotions. The resulting synthesis provokes political action. The existence of a social problem is established beyond doubt. And there is a corresponding personal feeling of responsibility to effect change because the problem was initially grounded in each individual's personal emotional response to the world.

In the complexity of the interaction between these two events, important implications arise about the process of politicization. Neither event alone could have motivated a political response. By itself, THE CHINA SYNDROME fails to overcome the apolitical milieu of most Hollywood features. The Three Mile Island accident, when alone, is an abstraction, insulated from real human response by a barrier of emotionally false objectivity.

It is the synthesis of these two events which provides an argument sufficient to politicize. The argument must necessarily be complex if it is to reflect the complexity in the world itself. Moreover, the argument must necessarily be a holistic argument. If it is to provoke holistic change, nothing else will suffice. By studying the implications of the experience of THE CHINA SYNDROME and Three Mile Island, we can see them as more than a freak coincidence. They become a lesson whose application can insure the continuation of the process of politicization.