‘The China Syndrome’ Review: I Feel It

Posted in The Screening Room by - March 12, 2015

During our foray into Disaster Movie Month, we’ve seen more than our fair share of total duds, but haven’t really been exposed to many successful films. The China Syndrome may be the best disaster movie ever made, not solely because Jack Lemmon won the Oscar for best actor, but because it doesn’t pander to the audience with poor screen-writing or cookie cutter characters. It also happens to stand the test of time as a culturally relevant look at the nuclear power industry and what happens when truth gets covered with lies.

The basic premise of the film is that a local TV news reporter, played by Jane Fonda, along with her cameraman, played by Michael Douglas, are witnesses to a nuclear accident while filming a fluff piece on the new nuclear power plant.  They watch as the shift supervisor, played by the incomparable Jack Lemmon, barely averts the disaster by mere seconds; a disaster that could have destroyed a major portion of California. Unbeknownst to the plant manager, the whole disaster is filmed by the intrepid reporters, who try to get it aired on their station yet are stopped when the plant’s PR team intervenes. The rest of the movie has Douglas, Fonda, and Lemmon working together to try and prevent “the China syndrome” from occurring. The syndrome in question has the reactor core of the plant burning through the containment unit and being so hot that it would burn all the way to China. 

The real genius portion of the film is that it’s a disaster film that doesn’t actually feature a disaster; it just mentions an event that never happens. The real suspense of the film comes from the buildup as to whether or not the plant will actually meltdown, or if Lemmon and crew are able to prevent the tragedy. It’s more of a thriller than a disaster film, which makes it more successful overall than any movie I’ve watched until this point for the marathon. The way the film approaches the disaster truly elevates the stakes of the film without approaching melodrama. It also helps that the disaster of the film is realistic in nature as opposed to say, a tornado filled with sharks.

Jack Lemmon, while being one of my all time favorite actors, has one of his best performance in the film, better than even his turn as Shelley Levine in Glengarry Glen Ross. He is conflicted as the shift supervisor, as he wants to do the right thing but at the same time not lose his job. It’s a fantastic performance, since Lemmon is the master of truly humanizing his characters. He is able to make you feel for him without approaching melodrama or forced emotion. It’s truly a master class in dramatic acting, and worthy of the accolades it received. 

While Lemmon did win an Oscar for his performance, both Fonda and Douglas are standouts in the film. Fonda doesn’t want her character to be seen as just a pretty face who does fluff pieces for the news, which is why she strives to discover the truth behind the plant. She’s a woman in a man’s world who takes no shit from her bosses and shows true strength and courage in the film. Along with her, Douglas is defiant and cocky, a role that he pulls off quite well. He refuses to listen to authority and does what he believes is right, regardless of the ethical ramifications of his actions. It’s refreshing to see characters in a disaster movie that are actual human beings and not just stereotypical representations. 

The China Syndrome doesn’t need grandiose explosions or huge set pieces to succeed as a disaster movie; it’s terrifying due to the plausibility of the scenario. Along with the fact that it features outstanding performances from three of Hollywood’s finest actors, it breaks the mold of what a disaster movie can be. If Hollywood made more disaster movies like The China Syndrome and less like Knowing, the sub-genre could be taken more seriously as a whole.

Final Say: Watch It

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Chris Stachiw is the Editor-in-Chief and co-host of the Kulturecast. He’s a native Californian with a penchant for sarcasm and a taste for the cinematic bizarre. You’ll often find him wandering the wasteland of Nebraska searching for the meaning of life and possibly another rare Pokemon.

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