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Film / The China Syndrome

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A 1979 Conspiracy Thriller (with some Disaster Movie elements) directed by James Bridges, starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas, and a good-sized nuclear reactor in California that won't behave.

Kimberly Wells (Fonda), a newswoman for KXLA-TV in Los Angeles, is frustrated that her station won't let her cover serious news (she's stuck with light-hearted non-events). Sent on a tour of a nearby nuclear power plant to promote the positives of nuclear energy, she and her cameraman Richard Adams (Douglas) witness the reactor control room just as something goes wrong. Supervisor Jack Godell (Lemmon) finds out that the core's close to meltdown and, with alarms blaring and panic mounting, works with his friend Ted Spindler (Wilford Brimley) and his team to fix the problem (during which Jack feels an unusual tremor that unsettles him for the entire movie). While Jack's team saves the plant, Richard has quietly filmed it all with his camera...

Thinking they've found a big story to report, Kim and Richard are instead told by KXLA management to keep quiet and place their film in storage while the station's lawyers figure out their potential liability. Meanwhile, Jack tries to warn his own bosses that there is something fishy happening with the plant, only to have them insist there's nothing wrong. An investigation into the incident is quickly rubber-stamped. Meanwhile, the company responsible for the plant's construction is busy trying to get another one built in a hurry...

At every turn, separately and then as a team, Jack, Kim and Richard try to find out what happened and warn others that something's very wrong. Eventually Jack realizes that the tremor was caused by faulty welding on the main pump, which will cause the pump to fail if it is pushed to full capacity; This faulty welding was never discovered because, rather than test every weld like they were supposed to do, the company decided to save money by testing one weld and submitting its test results for every other weld. If this were brought to light, it would force the immediate shutdown of the plant and, most likely, legal charges for its builders and owners.

After Richard's friend has a severe driving "accident" while trying to sneak proof of the company's lack of testing to a regulatory committee, Jack's paranoid and frustrated enough to seize a security guard's gun and take control of the reactor. Kim tries to interview Jack live on television (breaking into KXLA's regularly-scheduled programming of The Magnificent Marble Machine; no, seriously) so he can inform her viewers just what went wrong, but the power company SCRAM the reactor in order to take control away from Jack (during a SCRAM it runs fully automatic for a short time), then kills the TV signal and sends in a SWAT team to breach the control room and shoot Jack. While he lies dying, the faulty main pump fails as the reactor is brought to maximum power, leading to a terrifying few minutes of OMG it's gonna blow! The pump is finally shut down just as it completely breaks free from its moorings. As the power company's officials attempt to run damage control by discrediting Jack as a madman, Kim (now back on the air) approaches Ted and gets him to state that Jack was sane and that there needs to be a full investigation.

The China Syndrome came out during the post-Watergate era, at a time when the public was in a paranoid mood about the people — politicians, the corporations, the media — who seemed to be in charge of things. What made this movie stand out was that on March 28, 1979 (two weeks after Syndrome was released) the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster took place, making what was a standard thriller into a prescient piece of film-making. And seven years later, the emergency shutdown actually causing a meltdown is even more eerily similar to the Chernobyl disaster.

Note that nothing actually happens in or to China; the title comes from a joke that if a nuclear reactor did have a meltdown it would burn all the way through to China on the other side of the Earth. Actually, a meltdown's extreme heat would get absorbed by the surrounding earth, and would get as far as the underground water supply where it would make things a hundred times worse. Also, if it did burn through the Earth to the other side, it'd end up in the Indian Ocean.

This film provides examples of:

  • Artistic License:
    • The lights in the control room would not be lost when the reactor scrammed any more than the lights to their controls and instruments would be lost. And even if the main lights did lose power, the backup safety lights would automatically turn on and not wait until the dramatic incident was over.
    • Richard secretly films the initial incident from the control room visitor gallery. However, he's using a film camera which would be given away by the sounds of its mechanisms. The plant's PR man Gibson would surely have heard the camera in the otherwise quiet gallery and would know what the sound was.
  • Artistic License Nuclear Physics: Averted in the depiction of how a nuclear core meltdown might occur, which is fairly realistic. Played straight in the described possible effects of said meltdown, which are ridiculously over-blown and inaccurate, exposing the film's infamous anti-nuclear message disguised as supposed realism.
    • When the Turbine trips they take the plant "off the grid". You never take a nuclear reactor off the grid, because in the event of an emergency you'll need power from the network to deal with it, true, you have diesel back-up generators on stand-by, but those can fail (as did happen with Fukushima) and when they do, you are screwed.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: When Kimberly wanted to cover a major story, she got more involved than she bargained for, stuck in the middle of a war between the power plant's management, that want its flaws covered up, and its head controller, who wants to warn the public what could happen.
  • "Be Quiet!" Nudge: When Richard, upset when Jacovich decides not to air the footage he shot of the accident, starts to give Jacovich a The Reason You Suck speech, he interrupts himself by angrily telling Kimberly, "Do not kick me under the table!"
  • Big "NO!": Inaudibly done by Richard along with pounding on the glass when The SWAT team breaks into the control room and opens fire on Jack.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Jack is shot to death, and the company tries to pin the blame on him by calling him insane. Kim finds Jack's friend Ted and forces him on live television to admit Jack "was the sanest man I know", and that there ought to be an investigation into the disaster. Unless it's an Inferred Holocaust instead.
  • Bland-Name Product: The owner of the plant is California Gas and Electric, presumably a stand in for the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. However, when the movie was made, only two nuclear plants were in California, San Onofre, near San Diego, owned by Southern California Edison, and Diablo Canyon, which is owned by PG&E, only that plant is near Santa Barbara, and unlikely to be covered by a Los Angeles station as a plant in that area is a lot further from Los Angeles than San Onofre was. (San Onofre has since been decomissioned and is being disassembled.)
  • Book Ends: The film opens and closes on a shot of a TV monitor showing bars and tone.
  • Commanding Coolness: Bill Gibson passingly mentions that Jack used to the commander of a nuclear sub.
  • Conspiracy Thriller: Of the corporate kind.
  • Covers Always Lie: Some of the home video covers depict Ventana Nuclear as having a cooling tower, which it does not have in the film.
  • Cutting Corners: Jack realizes that the construction company was extremely cheap while they were building the plant. He reviews radiographs of the pump welds, only to find that they're the same picture submitted again and again.
  • Diagonal Billing: Stars Jack Lemmon and Jane Fonda share top billing on the film's poster. Lemmon's name is featured at the lower left, Fonda's name is center top.
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: Averted; when the car following Hector runs him off the road, the car doesn't explode at all, but has normal damage.
  • Failed a Spot Check: During the initial turbine trip, Jack somehow fails to notice that the status logs (a few lines below the "TURBINE TRIP" entry) mention "RECIRCULATION PUMP - MIN FLOW" and "FEEDWATER -MINIMUM FLOW", which would indicate a low water level instead of the high level that the stuck indicator was suggesting.
  • Foreshadowing: The second tremor that Jack felt during the accident. It haunts Jack until the end, when it's revealed to be the main coolant pump cavitating as it goes to maximum power during a SCRAM, which stresses its sub-standard welds.
  • Going Critical: What Jack is terrified is going to happen when the company plans on charging the reactor to full power - putting immense pressure on the faulty pump.
  • Hell Is That Noise: During the initial turbine trip, Jack asks for someone to turn off the alarm because he can barely hear himself give orders over the infernal racket.
  • Helpless Window Death: Richard can only scream with rage when the SWAT team breaks in and shoots Jack during Kimberly's interview with him.
  • Heroic BSoD: Jack just happens to have the rotten luck of breaking down from the paranoia and terror just as he's trying to warn everybody there is something dangerously wrong with the reactor.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Jack Godell fights the power and loses badly... but he manages to unequivocally demonstrate a flaw on the nuclear reactor that the corporation just cannot leave alone (although they will definitely try to fix it quietly).
  • Incompetence, Inc.: Jack becomes increasingly disillusioned with how the Ventana nuclear power plant is run by its greedy "safety-second" owners. He has a hard time understanding why the construction company who build it are threatening him, and the contractors who kept submitting the same radiograph to cover-up the failing integrity of welds on the faulty pump.
  • Instant Cooldown: Averted. The crisis at Ventana begins after the reactor is safely shut down. A faulty gauge leads the operators to believe the containment vessel is flooded so they open multiple relief valves to dump the coolant, resulting in an immediate Oh, Crap! when they realize too late that the gauge was stuck and the water level is actually critically low and they're about to incur a Title Drop when the still-hot core is exposed.
  • Kick the Dog: Richard leaves a message on Kimberley's answer machine just to call her an asshole.
  • The Kindnapper: Jack is shunned by his colleagues who believe him to be over-tired and over-worked. When they try to restart the reactor, it forces the supervisor to hijack the plant, to prevent a meltdown.
  • Lecture as Exposition: The plant's PR rep gives Kimberly a summary of how a nuclear reactor works. Justified, as she's filming this for a news report and it needs to be easy to understand for the television audience.
  • Married to the Job: Jack loves the Ventana nuclear power plant which distresses him why others would want to ruin everything in the name of profit.
  • Oh, Crap!: Pretty much everyone's expression when they realize that the water level indicator they've been using through the incident has been stuck on "high", giving very false indications. Jack Godell taps the glass and the needle drops down to a level only a few inches above the reactor core falling dry. The floor supervisor has his own Oh, Crap! moment when plant-wide emergency alerts start going off, and starts hustling his crew fast as they can run to the safety areas.
    • A second Oh Crap moment occurs when Jack realizes that the X-ray pictures of the pump welds were falsified during construction.
    • And everyone gets that expression during the ending as the reactor's main coolant pump starts cavitating hard enough that everyone can feel it. With each support strut that falls, it gets closer to breaking loose and tearing itself apart - taking the reactor with it. The lights in the control room go out, then the TV feed from the pump is cut...
    Jack Godell as he lay dying: I... I can feel it...(cue emergency alarms and mass Oh, Crap!)...
  • Only Sane Employee: Much to Jack's dismay, as no one else is prepared to verify if the plant is safe or not. His suspicions are confirmed when the contractors try to kill him.
  • Poor Communication Kills: When Godell takes control of the plant and gets interviewed on-air by Kimberly, he's under so much stress that his statement is disjointed and far too technical for average television viewers. After the broadcast is shut off and Godell is killed, Kimberly asks Mac Churchill how much of it went out. Churchill resignedly answers, "Enough to make Godell look like a lunatic."
  • Precision F-Strike: An unusual silent variant, with Richard screaming "bastards! You bastards!" behind soundproof glass.
  • Properly Paranoid: Think the corporation you work for doesn't like how you're digging into how the nuclear plant was built and how the quarterly safety checks were forged? Wondering about that car behind you on the highway carrying guys who could take on the Steelers' defensive front? Terrified that your own co-workers - and even your best friend Wilford Brimley! - are talking about bringing the reactor back online at full power? Welcome to Jack's world!
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: While CG&E clearly commits evil acts over the course the film (such as trying to murder Hector), after Jack seizes the control room, McCormack is justified in sending the SWAT team in to neutralize him. WE know Jack's intentions, as do Kimberly and Richard, but McCormack doesn't. Jack is certainly disturbed and could probably do something a lot more dangerous than ruining the plant by flooding the containment. And the SWAT team is justified shooting him too because once the SCRAM is triggered, Jack starts running around the room frantically operating the controls. They cannot assume his intentions are good.
  • Rule of Pool: In a deleted scene, Kim is at a party and one of the guests is harassing her. They are all standing around a pool. Guess what happens to the guy.
  • The '70s
  • Shout-Out: Fonda wanted red hair as a shout out to one of her childhood heroes, comics character Brenda Starr. This caused some problems for James Crabe, the film's cinematographer, because red was a tricky color to work with at the time, and he had to deal with not only filming red hair, but also filming television broadcasts with red hair.
  • Shown Their Work: Anyone who knows the basics about boiling-water reactors will see that the turbine-trip scene that kicks off the plot happens exactly it would in a real reactor. With the HPCI (High Pressure Coolant Injection) system down and the feedwater isolation valves closed, Jack did exactly the correct thing: Dump pressure from the reactor to bring in the LPCI (Low Pressure Coolant Injection) system online - the last line of defense against core exposure. Dumping pressure from the reactor, however, drops the coolant level, so it was a race between core exposure and LIPC coming online. Furthermore, it transferred all that pressure to the main coolant pump, putting it under tremendous strain - and it began cavitating...
  • Silent Credits: Although see What Could Have Been.
  • Take That!: The guys in the plant point out that all the anti-nuke activists likely have a lot of electrical appliances in their homes. More specifically Jack makes a very impassioned speech about the reason the core did not melt down was because the very meticulous safety systems and all the redundancies worked to a T.
  • Think of the Children!: The anti-nukes, during the safety hearing for the power plant, hold up pictures of their children and read out their names.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story:
    • The plant's original near-meltdown is loosely based on a real incident which occurred at the Dresden Generating Station in Chicago in 1970. Both the real event and its fictional counterpart are kicked off when a stuck needle causes engineers to misread the water level, causing the core to overheat.
    • Hector's accident is very reminiscent of the death of activist Karen Silkwood.
  • Yiddish as a Second Language: Kimberly, trying to find Richard, asks Hector, who not only claims he doesn't know where Richard went, but also tells Kimberly to send him back when she finds him; Kimberly sarcastically calls Hector "a real mensch."
  • You Have to Believe Me!: How Jack sounds during his interview with Kimberly at the end, ranting about how the reactor shouldn't be ramped up to full power because of the abnormal vibrations. He's trying to warn people the main coolant pump is faulty and pushing it would result in certain catastrophe, but he's so agitated and panicked he just comes across as crazy.