Review: The China Syndrome

Blu-ray: The China Syndrome (1979)

The China Syndrome is a series of hypothetical but completely possible events that would lead to the meltdown of a reactor. The core would melt through the container and deep into the earth, theoretically all the way to China. To say the stakes are high would be an understatement.

The China Syndrome, directed by James Bridges, is a gripping thriller embedded in themes of journalistic integrity, the juxtaposition of professional duty and ethics and the danger of nuclear power. The film follows field reporter Kimberly and her camera man Richard as the two are thrust into a world of conspiracy when they capture footage of an accident at a local power plant. Parallel to plant supervisor Jack’s investigations, they battle the corporate big-wigs for the safety of the surrounding environment as a cover up is relentlessly put into procedure.

The film is as tense as any other thriller, though in far subtler ways. The film has a pretty slow start and takes it’s time building and building its oppositions towards the protagonists. There’s an effective curve in how slowly it all mounts. If the film manages to grip you you’re in for an extremely tense drama that culminates into an exciting, but still very subtle third act. And I stress the word subtle. The film can be so grounded in reality that with a little choice editing I’m sure you could make this look like a documentary. As such the film never goes full disaster movie. For some, this will understandably be very boring. But if you allow yourself to be gripped by Bridges’ direction and think about the implications of what you’re seeing, you’re bound to be made uncomfortable. Especially when you consider the implications of the harrowing last shot of the film.

I could not even think about ending this review without singing praise to the films excellent three leads. Jane Fonda shows true inner turmoil as she wrestles with her own journalistic integrity and the expectations of her bosses. It’s a joy to watch her and Richard, the bold and passionate cameraman played by ever brilliant Michael Douglas, together on screen. The two really display a real heart-warming chemistry that I honestly didn’t expect. They just work extremely well together and are so likable I found it impossible to not get sucked into their every interaction. My only complaint is that I wish there were more of the two together. The third lead played by Jack Lemmon, named Jack, perfectly displays a man engulfed in stress forced to do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing. It’s tragic watching him forced into a corner by a profession he loves and Lemmon plays it brilliantly.

The China Syndrome is a fantastic, tense drama that raises the tough questions about a then rise in the use of nuclear power. It’s slow, grounded pace will certainly feel almost like blue-balling for some, those willing to get invested will definitely be taken on an uncomfortable, nail-biting ride.

An extremely effective thriller, The China Syndrome does not deserve to be so overlooked today. You owe it to yourself and the film’s makers to watch this.

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Review by Joel, from a disc kindly supplied by Powerhouse Films.