‘The China Syndrome’ or — Containment Entertainment?

I only had vague memories of ‘The China Syndrome’ (1979) before re-visiting it earlier this week and it turns out I even had those faint recollections somewhat back-to-front. Wasn’t this the film about desperately trying to avert an impending nuclear meltdown? Well, it sort of is and isn’t because the accident, or “event”, takes place practically at the opening of the movie meaning it’s not really a nuclear disaster movie at all because it’s over before we know it. Neither is it a conspiracy yarn as there isn’t really any believable conspiracy of note going on. A cover-up story? Maybe, but is there actually a convincing cover-up at play here?

It’s also not an anti-atomic power diatribe because the atomic power industry doesn’t come out of this looking THAT bad (indeed, it could even be seen as an endorsement of their safety procedures!) and it doesn’t even quite function as a thriller because nothing much thrilling happens (there’s an unexpected, and quite nicely handled, car chase that isn’t really a car chase after we realise we’re simply watching Lemmon driving to work accompanied by some artificially manufactured tension).

So what’s the appeal of ‘The China Syndrome’, if any? The appeal has nothing to do with potential nuclear annihilation, shadowy organisations or pulse-pounding fear and down to one simple aspect regarding the movie — it’s very well made and is entertaining as hell. And that’s it!

Now this might sound like damning with faint praise but only because that’s the genuine draw of the film. At no point was I thinking “Ooh, atomic power plants are bad” or “I do hope the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are under investigation for assassinating innocent civilians which, I assume, is a little outside of their job description.” No, instead I was thinking “This film is really nicely editing, shot, written, acted, directed, well paced, has got some great sound design and is rather quite riveting.”

This could be because the focus of ‘The China Syndrome’ isn’t really about nuclear power but the functioning of systems, our trust in them and how that trust is also an act of faith and then exploiting all that for maximum popcorn-munching entertainment. In that respect the film anticipates the work of Paul Greengrass, a filmmaker highly adept and skilled at representing complex systems and the ramifications of their flaws through a documentary style approach. Like with Greengrass’ work the result here is very exciting.

Another unexpected target of the movie is how much it delves into the workings of TV and the media with both those and the nuclear power network almost functioning (or not) in parallel (both are controlled by glass booths) and with both dealing with matters of responsibility. Not only that but who, exactly, are the bad guys here? If anyone was breaking the law it was Michael Douglas’ “heroic” cameraman who spends the majority of the film constantly committing so many felonies I’m amazed he wasn’t locked-up for life.

And it was the film’s actor/producer Douglas himself who described ‘The China Syndrome’ as not so much a political or message movie but as “purely entertainment” and he’s right because that’s the context in which the film works best; it’s not so much an expose of the flaws in the nuclear or media complexes but more a celebration of the efficacy of good filmmaking itself — editing, sound, vision, acting, etc. It’s an expertly constructed movie meaning ‘The China Syndrome’, to quote Jack Lemmon’s Godell, is evidence of a “system that works, goddamn it” and that system is cinema.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.