The China Syndrome (1979)

(On Cable TV, October 2017) Few movies ever reached topical relevancy as definitively as The China Syndrome, released barely twelve days before the Three Mile Island nuclear accident brought the film’s themes to the forefront of the public discourse. Nowadays, The China Syndrome still plays well, largely because it’s a solid thriller with a capable trio of lead actors. What viewers may not remember (or expect) from the film is how it acts as a great primer on newsgathering in the late seventies, with Jane Fonda playing an ambitious reporter, helped along by a cameraman/technician (a dashingly bearded Michael Douglas, who also produced the film), inadvertently records evidence of a dangerous incident at a nuclear power plant. Trade details aside, the film soon moves into solid conspiracy thriller territory as the characters do their best to go public before the incident reoccurs. The ending is dark, but not quite as bleak as I remembered it. Jack Lemmon anchors the conspiracy angle in reality. Convincing procedural details, either from the TV news angle or the operations of the nuclear reactor itself, keep the film grounded in the required realism. While the film’s surface sheen is clearly from the late seventies, The China Syndrome itself hasn’t aged all that much, and you could indeed imagine a remake that wouldn’t have to change much in order to remain relevant. Still, the 1979 version remains both compelling and reflective or its era. It is well worth a look.

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