Newspaper: The Dickinsonian
Date: April 12, 1979
Article: Film becomes terrifyingly real
Author: Julie Levinson

The use of nuclear energy as a viable alternative to fossil fuel has long been a controversial subject. Dartmouth students have been protesting the construction of a nuclear plant in Seabrook, N.H. for at least four or five years, and No Nukes has become a household phrase. Research in the field of nuclear energy has advanced far, but some of the most vital information, such as adequate cooling systems for reactor rods, has yet to be understood by experts. There is no permanent, safe method of disposal of nuclear wastes which remain in the environment for a much longer period of time then man shall exist on the earth.

It is the duty of the film maker to depict pertinent subject matter in its most sincere form. Michael Douglas, producer of The China Syndrome, obviously felt strongly enough about the problems linked with extended use of nuclear energy to produce this phenomenally accurate film. Surely, Douglas was unaware of the full impact of his film considering the time of release, the content, and the subsequent Three Mile Island incident. Parallels certainly exist, but this film carries much more with it than the similarity to the actual incident.

Douglas portrays an excitable cameraman who stumbles into the world of nuclear energy while filming an energy special with Jane Fonda, a practitioner of “soft news” who aspires to be an investigative reporter over the objections of the station management. While touring the Ventana Nuclear plant in southern California an accident occurs which is termed a routine turbine trip. During the tour, nuclear energy is billed as “the magical transformation of matter into energy.” The diagrams and stage setting are rather authentic looking.

The tour comes to a halt in an observation room overlooking the control area when the accident occurs. Jack Lemmon, who is the man in charge of the plant’s control room first behaves in a blasé manner taking the turbine trip in stride. Soon though, the workers are evacuated to safety area and Lemmon begins to show obvious anxiety.

Douglas, meanwhile, films the whole incident, but cannot show the film on the air because it would be considered irresponsible journalism.

So the dilemma here lies with the fact that Jane Fonda has landed the top story, and she and Douglas along with the efforts of Lemmon must somehow alert the public to the potential danger which accompanies the faulty relay in the generator service and a stuck valve.

The men who represent the owners of the power plant constantly claim there was no accident and that the public was never in any danger. But their main concerns are monetary as they lose $492,000 a day when the plant is shut down.

The television management refuses to allow the film of the accident to be made public and Douglas, who shows vital concern, steals the film and hands it over to a nuclear expert who confirms that the defects in the power plant if left untreated, could “render an area the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable.”

The technical features of the film itself lack perfection. A secretive exchange of x-rays of damaged welds which would serve as crucial evidence is extremely obvious. Yet on the other hand, the car crashes were delightfully realistic, and silence is the background sound which intensified the suspense towards the end of the film. Jack Lemmon unfortunately never looks like the hero he is, and Jane Fonda becomes extremely melodramatic after Lemmon’s death. The film’s authenticity is its major strength, and this critic feels no need to reinforce that fact. The reality of the possibility of The China Syndrome actually occurring is frighteningly relevant.