Sunday, April 19, 2015

The China Syndrome

Coming up this afternoon at 4:00 PM on TCM is the interesting, if sometimes polemical film The China Syndrome.

Jane Fonda stars as Kimberley Wells, a local TV news reporter out in southern California. She thinks she's a good reporter, but unfortunatley she's buried in the lunchtime features beat, doing crappy human interest stories that she doesn't care about because they're beneath her. She doesn't realize that one of those stories is about to blow up in her lap.

Wells andher cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) go to a nuclear power plant to do a report on how nuclear is going to solve America's energy problems, this being the era of oil embargos and such. As they get to the part of the plant that overlooks the control room, they have to turn off the camera for security reasons. While in that room, the plant has an incident. At first it just seems like a minor earthquake, since everybody feels shaking, and it's enough to trip some of the safety features. One of the features, however, malfunctions, as a water gauge seems to be showing more water than there should be. So when they shut of a valve, they think they're returning the water to its normal level, but in fact they're putting the water at a dangerously low level. Catastrophe is averted, however, and the plant is put off-line pending an investigation of the incident.

Kim isn't quite certain what to do, but Richard knows. He's much more of a hothead than she is, and just knows that the utility company and the federal regulators are pulling the wool over everybody's eyes, expecially when you consider that the utility has another nuke plant up for public discussion. The TV station, for its part, has its own problems. They have to produce a report that is factual lest they be subject to a libel suit, and also one that fits their contractual obligations, like not using footage that was surreptitiously obtained in direct conflict with a signed agreement.

Of course, Richar is not going to be the only one with questions about what's gone on at the facility. He steals the footage from the TV station (I told you he was a hothead), and shows it to some nuclear physicists who are firmly in the anti-nuclear power camp and claim that the plant was this close to suffering a meltdown. Far more important however, is what's going on inside the plant. The supervisor who was on duty at the time of the incident, Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon), has been doing some investigation of his own, and has come to the conclusion that there's a safety flaw at the plant caused by one of the subcontractors doing a shoddy job with the welding and not documenting it properly. He's willing to cooperate with Kim, but he's also discovered that he's got people tailing him, presumably to keep him from reporting what he knows. You'll have to watch the movie to see how Jack solves that problem.

The China Syndrome is a pretty entertaining movie, although it's one that's firmly grounded in the 1970s. Sometime after all that happened in Vietnam and with Watergate, Hollywood started making a lot of movies that have a conspiracy theory theme of how big business is evil and shady and controlling the government for its own ends. Soylent Green and The Parallax View come right to mind. The China Syndrome isn't quite as far to that end of the spectrum as especially The Parallax View, but as the movie goes on it does become increasingly clear in making the point that the utility company is going beyond bad in its handling of the situation. The ironic thing is that real life should eventually have disproved the movie. Shortly after the film was released, the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania had an event that was really quite minor, although those who would panic monger would have you believe otherwise.

Still, don't let all of that put you off The China Syndrome, which ultimately does succeed in entertaining, even if you'll dislike some of the good guys.

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