THE CHINA SYNDROME: Blu-ray re-issue (Columbia, 1979) Indicator/Powerhouse

When it premiered in 1979, James Bridges’ The China Syndrome was met with open hostility from the nuclear power industry; labeled ‘sheer fiction’ at best, and a gross ‘character assassination on the entire industry’ at its worst. A scant twelve days later, Three Mile Island put a decidedly different spin on this snap assessment, leaving nuclear power commissioners to rally their wagons around a homegrown crisis. Those left scratching their heads at the commission were forced to admit a cruel verisimilitude at work. Anxious to avoid any hint of seeming exploitative, Columbia Pictures pulled The China Syndrome from theaters; a bizarre epitaph for a project tenaciously begun by competing interests. Throughout the 1970’s, either out of spite for having its own imperious temples of entertainment raided by monolithic business concerns (that, in point of fact, knew absolutely nothing about running film studios…except, into the ground), or merely to satisfy the liberal biases of their own creative personnel, Hollywood steadily pursued a policy for coming down hard on big business. Whether critiquing cost-cutting measures that doom the world’s tallest skyscraper to a fiery blaze (The Towering Inferno, 1974) or challenging the interment of employees toiling under inhumane conditions in the garment industry (Norma Rae, 1979), the movie mandarins cast steely-eyed aspersions on a whitewash against capitalism’s ‘best practices’.
Arguably, some of it was well-deserved. And certainly, the timely fate of Three Mile Island helped to propel the public’s fascination for The China Syndrome. Yet, this too was cut short by Columbia’s sudden attack of cold feet about having a hit movie that dared to make a quick buck on a ‘real life’ disaster; despite the fact The China Syndrome happened first. What spares The China Syndrome from becoming just another anti-capitalist bash is its character-driven drama. Yes, the movie is still about the prospects of a nuclear holocaust laying waste to unsuspecting communities grown up around its reactor facilities. But the screenplay is heavily devoted to the people behind the peril – some placed before it against their will. As such, we invest ourselves in Michael Douglas’ frustrated champion for a ‘truly’ free press. We can empathize with Jack Lemmon’s woeful plant supervisor – the ‘true believer’ suffering an epiphany about his misplaced loyalties to the company. The story remains relevant too, if for no other reason than the threat of another nuclear meltdown is ever-present in our energy-dependent landscape.
The China Syndrome was actually the brainchild of two competitors: Michael Douglas – newly christened as Hollywood’s fair-haired son after his monumental success as a producer on One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and, Bruce Gilbert and Jane Fonda, already involved in solidifying a deal with Columbia Pictures. Douglas, who had left the safety net of a lucrative television series – The Streets of San Francisco (1972-77) – had yet to make inroads as a movie star, and this in the days when it was more difficult (if not impossible) to graduate from TV to movie stardom. Indeed, it was rare, if not uncommon, for such a crossover to occur. But Douglas’ success as a producer had come with a level of expectation. As such, the actor began searching for a property he could independently produce, but with a meaty role in it for himself. Douglas had read a first draft screenplay by T.S. Cook and Mike Gray (who also wanted to direct); sincerely impressed by its intensity as a potential ‘monster movie’; the horror, derived from that unwieldy leviathan of nuclear fission turning on its masters. For authenticity, Cook and Gray consulted a pair of disenchanted former G.E. executives to help flesh out the particulars of their emergency scenario (SCRAM). 
Douglas was also responsible for wooing Jim Bridges to the picture. Initially, Bridges showed little interest. His filmmaker’s strengths were more aligned telling stories with strong characters, as he had already proven with his multi-Oscar-nominated The Paper Chase (1973). Douglas had also conceived a costarring role for himself alongside Richard Dreyfuss; the two, a pair of gutsy reporters out to scoop a story about a potential accident inside a nuclear facility.  At the same instance, Jane Fonda was aggressively pursuing a similarly themed project with Bruce Gilbert. Fonda’s strong political activism, also her participation on the campaign for economic democracy, prompted the film’s scenario to take on a very anti-nuclear agenda. Fonda was inspired by Karen Gay Silkwood, a chemical technician and labor union activist involved in exposing a cover-up at Kerr-McGee; the company she worked for, that manufactured plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. Silkwood had died under mysterious circumstances, a ‘car accident’ while on her way to be interviewed by New York Times journalist, David Burnham. Although Fonda aspired to actually play Karen Silkwood (a part eventually made concrete by Meryl Streep in the 1983 movie, Silkwood), legal wrangling and the threat of a lawsuit precluded the actual retelling of Karen’s life story in 1979.
Roz Heller, then an executive at Columbia, and well aware of Michael Douglas’ pet project, suggested he and Fonda might pool their ideas, resources and talents on a single ambition. It was an inspired notion, one immediately and passionately embraced by director James Bridges, who set about crystalizing the Gray/Cook screenplay with a rewrite; also, by becoming heavily involved in the picture’s casting.  From the earliest days, Michael Douglas had sought Jack Lemmon for the part of Jack Godell; a shift supervisor at the fictional Ventana nuclear power plant, who has a change of heart and loyalties after he narrowly averts an all-out disaster, only to quickly discover the company intends to throw his reputation under the proverbial bus as their scapegoat. Lemmon, as unwavering in his anti-nuclear stance as Jane Fonda, loved the concept immediately and agreed to do the part without question. Alas, it would be nearly two years before this opportunity would arise.
In the interim, Michael Douglas encountered several stalemates; chiefly, Hollywood’s cold feet to produce any movie where the energy tsars were depicted as devious and greedy. Although the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant was used as the template for George Jenkin’s production design (in fact, a litany of still photographs were taken inside their control room and reactor facilities), The China Syndrome shot mostly on elaborate sound stages built back at Columbia Studios; with only a few brief exteriors and interiors actually lensed on location – and even then, not at any of California’s nuclear power plants. In the editing process, director, Bridges would skillfully combine this footage with some realistic miniature models and matte paintings designed by Arthur Jeph Parker. The China Syndrome is, at once, a proactive critique of the undisclosed perils of nuclear energy, an examination of the political intrigues involved in pushing forward the plans to dominate America’s energy dependence, and finally, a critical examination of the backroom machinations that threaten, stifle and eventually quash freedom of the press. If anything, The China Syndrome comes down rather hard on the media’s complicity in keeping silent; their abject irresponsibility toward serving the public’s right to know, more powerfully explored in Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976). As in Network, The China Syndrome depicts the absence of objective news coverage, ‘hard news’ devolving into the sort of pop-u-tainment/light ‘human interest’ stories.
Fonda’s Kimberly Wells is an ‘info-babe’ doing puff pieces as filler at her local affiliate, but thirsty for an opportunity to cover the beat with hard-edged journalism. Her cohort, hot-headed cameraman, Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) is her compatriot in this endeavor. Richard is passionate about investigative journalism. Hence, when the pair, along with sound man/assistant, Hector Salas (Daniel Valdez), experiences a minor upset that quickly escalates into a major crisis at the fictional Ventana Nuclear Power Plant, while doing a seemingly innocuous series on ‘clean energy’ alternatives, Richard is the first to disobey the network’s protocol by surreptitiously filming the entire ‘incident’ through the plate glass visitor’s observation deck. And it’s a dynamite story too; one that could put Kimberly over the top and really bring Richard’s reputation back from the dead.
Alas, no one will ever know. Upon returning to the network with their raw footage, spiritedly Kimberly informs her boss, Mac Churchill (James Karen) she inadvertently has ‘the lead story’ for their six o’clock telecast. Instead, the footage is screened – then scrapped – by network president, Don Jacovich (Peter Donat). Already contacted by Ventana’s public relations man, Bill Gibson (James Hampton) with a not altogether cordial ‘request’ to kill the story; Jacovich complies to minimalize the severity of what took place at the plant. Richard is outraged, cutting Jacovich a new hole and storming out of the office in an arrogant huff. He also blames Kimberly for her weak-kneed stand against the bureaucracy. Kimberly and Richard have a momentary falling out; Kimberly, attending Jacovich’s house party, but pleading for the opportunity to do hard news…also, to keep Richard as her cameraman. In the meantime, Ventana’s shift supervisor, Jack Godell comes under fire during a closed hearing/investigation. His honest assessment of the situation, also his prudence in suggesting the plant delay returning to operations – at least, until a more thorough assessment can be made regarding Ventana’s structural safety – inadvertently brands him the company’s scapegoat; though Jack is not aware of this as yet. It seems a stuck coolant gauge was responsible for dangerously low water levels in the reactor’s core.
Engineer, Ted Spindler (Wilford Brimley) also comes under fire, siding with the plant’s superintendent, Herman De Young (Scott Brady) who is determined nothing will get in the way of their scheduled restart.  However, during a routine inspection, Jack discovers high levels of radiation in a puddle of water that has apparently leaked from a defective pump. It’s no use. Ventana requires a serious investment of time and money to ensure the public’s safety. On the surface, Ted and Jack disagree. But actually, they are of one mindset. It is just that Ted is terrified of losing his job. But not even he can fathom the extent Ventana’s Board of Directors is prepared to go to make certain the ‘incident’ remains under wraps.  Investigating on his own, Jack comes to an ominous conclusion. The radiographs taken to verify the integrity of welds on the leaky pump are identical; the contractor having submitted the same picture over and over again to cut costs.
What if Ventana is truly unsafe? Could the plant sustain another full-power SCRAM? This is a terrifying prospect, and one Jack is determined to avoid at any and all costs. He proposes to Herman the plant be shuttered until a full inspection can be completed. Herman, however, explains that new radiographs would cost at least $20 million. Taking matters into his own hands, Jack challenges D.B. Royce (Paul Larson), an employee of Foster-Sullivan, the construction company who built the plant, to explain the radiographs, as it was he who signed off on them in the first place. Royce resents the implication…or rather, recognizes his shortcutting has been uncovered. Jack informs Royce he intends to go to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission with his findings. In retaliation, Royce threatens Jack with some thug muscle parked outside of his home.
Meanwhile, Richard swipes the developed film he shot at Ventana from the network’s vaults, showing it to a pair of experts, Dr. Lowell (Donald Hotton) and Greg Minor (Michael Alaimo). Both reach the same conclusion: Ventana came perilously close to ‘the China Syndrome’; a phrase well known to nuclear engineers, typified by a complete meltdown inside the reactor’s core, releasing radioactive steam into the groundwater with disastrous contamination of the surrounding area for miles. Backed by the overwhelming data that something rotten is decidedly afoot, Kimberly and Richard confront Jack at his home with their findings. He nervously confides in them that during the SCRAM he felt a vibration. This could have signaled the plant’s overall instability. He also explains about the falsified radiographs. Kimberly and Richard urge Jack to testify at the upcoming NRC hearings being held at Point Conception; a hotbed of activity for protestors lobbying against Foster-Sullivan’s latest plans to erect another nuclear plant in their own backyard.  Jack agrees to obtain copies of the falsified radiographs, passing them along to Hector.
Alas, the thug muscle Foster-Sullivan has watching Jack’s house, stalk Hector after he has gathered the evidence, forcing his car off the road in a near fatal accident and retrieving the files before the police and ambulances can arrive. Unaware of Hector’s demise, and without the necessary data for Dr. Lowell to present at the conference, Kimberly implores Jack to testify on their behalf. Jack agrees. But as he races down the highway toward the convention center, Jack becomes acutely aware he is being tailed. A high-spirited chase ensues, ending only after Jack manages to elude his pursuers and make his way to the plant, stealing a security guard’s pistol and taking refuge inside Ventana’s control room, determined to keep the plant from its full-powered restart.  Herman and the others try to storm the facility, but to no avail. It is under emergency lock and key; its doors and glass windows, bulletproof. Jack makes his demands to have Kimberly and Richard do a live remote from Ventana so he can make the public aware of the plant’s potential threat.
But only a few minutes into this broadcast, technicians deliberately rig a SCRAM to thwart Jack’s big reveal. Induced to react, Jack tries to bring Ventana back on line. SWAT teams invade the control room. Power is cut and Jack is assassinated to prevent the truth from getting out. As he dies in Richard’s arms, Jack mutters he can feel vibrations occurring underfoot once again. True to his predictions, the plant experiences an unanticipated SCRAM for real, the control room rocked by powerful vibrations that terrify all. The system is only brought back on line by the plant’s automatic failsafe.  Having witnessed the first few moments of Jack’s broadcast before the live feed was cut, members of the press have gathered outside the plant to get the real scoop on what has happened. Herman and the company’s president, Evan McCormack (Richard Herd) paint Jack Goddell as manifestly irresponsible, mentally disturbed and a disgruntled employee besides. But knowing better, Kimberly presses Ted Spindler to make his testament before a live audience. Coming to the aid of his fallen friend, Ted declares Jack is a hero and no crazier than himself. A tearful Kimberly signs off on her story, the TV signal abruptly interrupted by color bars, perhaps suggesting the cover up at Ventana will endure.
The China Syndrome is potently disturbing, perhaps due to the fact all of its principles firmly believe in the story being told. Jane Fonda did not win an Oscar for this movie, but should have; as also, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas were overlooked. The picture sizzles with precisely the sort of character-driven drama Hollywood today seems disinterested to indulge. There is a lot of ‘meat’ on the bone of this powerful drama and more than a kernel of truth regarding the dangers – not only of nuclear power – but residing in a nation in which the mandarins of exposing the truth are ultimately silenced by competing corporate interests. Today’s journalism has only continued to stray toward the latter’s bias ever since. The China Syndrome is a movie that, while popular in its day, does not get a lot of play time now and this is a shame. It continues to hold our attention because the acting and the script are just that good. My sincerest wish for burgeoning film makers is that they would come to understand movies need not be multi-million dollar pyrotechnic/CGI extravaganzas, book-ended in wall-to-wall action, in order to entertain or satisfy our increasingly short attention spans. Cinema storytelling is about so very much more than that…or rather…used to be.
U.K. label, Indicator has released a more comprehensively packaged Blu-ray of The China Syndrome. I suspect Sony – the custodians of the old Columbia library – are still a little squeamish about owning this one, as The China Syndrome was only made available previously on Blu-ray in North America, via RLJ /Image Entertainment. The new Indicator release is region free, meaning it will play anywhere in the world. This transfer appears to be derived from the same older master provided to RLJ, with one noted exception. This time, the 1080p transfer has a maxed-out bit rate. Does this help? Marginally. Things ‘crisp up’ revealing a bit more detail in skin, hair and fabrics. Flesh tones are warmer and contrast ever-so-slightly deepens. Actually, the transfer has a wonderfully organic film-like texture with ample grain. If colors do not exhibit the anticipated rich pop of color one usually expects from Blu-ray…well…The China Syndrome was never exactly designed as such either. This looks very good and, even better, Indicator has found it in their hearts to release it with two soundtracks; the original 1.0 mono in DTS and Sony’s re-envisioned 5.1 DTS (this latter effort was exclusively available on the RLJ release).
Where the Indicator release truly excels: the extras. We get 1973’s audio from John Player’s Lecture with Jack Lemmon, conducted by Philip Oakes at London’s National Film Theatre. As this runs approximately 80-minutes it perfectly overlaps the movie’s runtime and, in lieu of a legitimate ‘audio commentary’ is fascinating in its own right. Newly produced, is Assessing the Fallout, a 17-minute interview with Professor Tony Shaw, author of Rotten to the Core: Exposing America’s Energy-Media Complex in ‘The China Syndrome.  Shaw pulls no punches in his discussion of the movie’s relativity, not merely as a cultural artifact. We also get 4-mins. of deleted scenes and 2-half-hour documentaries that were a part of the RJL release: The China Syndrome: A Fusion of Talent and The China Syndrome: Creating a Controversy. Finally, I absolutely love Indicator’s booklets. At 40-pages we should really call it ‘a book’ chocked full of goodies: a brilliant new essay by Neil Sinyard, notes on the rejected score by Gergely Hubai, an interview with Bruce Gilbert, and an overview of contemporary critical responses to the movie. Bottom line: The China Syndrome is a great drama that needs more play time. It is given the full respect it is due on this Indicator release. I am not usually into double-dipping, but Indicator’s is the one to go with, even if you own the previous Blu-ray. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)