THE CHINA SYNDROME is one of those rare films that has more than just highly competent acting, scripting, and directing going for it. Current events also pops up from time to time to remind us that the events on the screen fit only too carefully into the jigsaw puzzle of art imitiating life. Just a few weeks after this nuclear power plant disaster film was released, a real life and similar catastrophe happened at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant. And then a decade later, a colossal meltdown at the Russian nuclear facility at Chernobyl again served as warning that if fallible human beings are permitted to design and run nuclear power plants, then the events of THE CHINA SYNDROME are just waiting to happen.
Director James Bridges pictures the fictional Ventana nuclear facility as an inevitable calamity to be. Jack Lemmon is shift supervisor Jack Godell, a man who is dedicated to the safety of the people of California. At first, he staunchly defends the integrity of his bosses who warn him that this plant must go online on time. Soon enough, with the help of television reporter Kimberly Wells, (Jane Fonda) and cameraman Richard Adams, (Michael Douglas) Godell discovers that safety has taken second place to corporate greed and the Almighty Buck. These three are horrified that the plant came THISCLOSE to an accident that might have poisoned the entire state for centuries. The final thirty minutes is a lesson to current directors about how to generate and maintain suspense and audience involvement without gratuitous sex or violence. Lemmon has never been better. Even his later Oscar for SAVE THE TIGER takes a back seat here. Fonda does well as she sets up the pace with a live interview with Lemmon that shows him both tongue tied and exasperated. In the hands of a lesser director, Lemmon might have sounded supremely confident and glib. Lemmon's inability to articulate was itself a tribute to his skill to communicate effectively even when he seemed not to. The closing moments of THE CHINA SYNDROME suggest that all that separates humanity from unimaginable disaster is the courage and wisdom of good company men like Jack Godell, who want only to be allowed to do their job without a board of directors pushing dollars over lives. During the twenty five years following the release of this film, repeated viewings have forced us to view its events under the constantly changing perspective of world events which ironically enough focus on terrorism as the cause of the next disaster. This film simply should not be missed.