#12: The China Syndrome
(USA, 1979; dir. James Bridges; scr. Mike Gray, T.S. Cook, and James Bridges; cin. James Crabe; with Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas, Wilford Brimley, Daniel Valdez, James Karen, James Hampton, Peter Donat, Scott Brady)
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One month after I graduated from college, flyers at the public library advertised a concerned citizens' meeting about a proposed nuclear facility to be built at some near or distant radius from Boston. Rather than recoiling at the familiar, alarm-shaped symbol for nuclear energy or at the prospect of an atomically contaminated New England, I was mostly terrified to realize that despite four years of diligent study, I didn't actually know why nuclear power was risky, or whether I should be for or against it, or even really what it was. This sensation affirmed what I already suspected, in a fit of what is now visible to me as a classic case of CIA, or Commencement-Inspired Anxiety. How could I know nothing about this widely-recognized bugbear of public health activism, which was also routinely pitched as a necessity in halting pollution born of fossil fuels? I had lived through the Chernobyl event on the newshow had I never asked a question about it, or read anything about it? "We don't want another Three Mile Island!" the flyer exclaimed. What, pray, was Three Mile Island? Failing these basic competencies of citizenship and social awareness, what did my three college essays about The Piano gain me, or my knowledge that any number of historical events were More Complicated Than You've Heard, or my ability to clock a line of alexandrine verse? Soaked in self-censure, I confessed my specific failings on this issue and my general horror of having pursued nothing important at university to my stalwart mentor and advocate, Elaine Scarry (who, ironically, was preparing a long-gestating manuscript that would eventually come to center on nuclear threats). Elaine mentioned she was in a reading group that summer that was about to explore a book about nuclear-age dangers and humanity's perverse flirtations with self-extinction; maybe I could read it, and also read the polarized reactions to its author's prior texts, if I wanted to learn something about the big issues underlying nuclear politics and nuclear fears. But maybe, since I liked movies, I might also watch James Bridges's The China Syndrome. I found it vaguely reassuring that even Elaine thought watching a movie (an Oscar-nominated one!) was a laudable and promising response to my well-intentioned if somewhat bemusing hysterics. That was the one and only time I have ever felt reassured by The China Syndrome.
I still find the movie completely galvanizing. Indeed, I am relieved by its very occasional lapse into sentiment or kitsch (the odd light ballad over the opening credits, the weird touch of the pet turtle, the fake-looking "reactor" that shakes and collapses near the end), because they are the only parts of the experience that temper the absolute dread that accumulates across the film. I usually end up in a fetal self-embrace in my chair or on my couch, as if I'm watching Blair Witch, the other scariest movie I saw after graduating from college. The spectrum of frights is rangy, from the almost unimaginable catastrophe of uncooled plutonium rods boring a hole straight through the earth to the nauseatingly mundane threat of a control-board needle that inspires woefully incorrect action because, as happens, the dial got stuck. Especially in 1979, but not only in 1979, you could blow up California because some gear or piece of plastic got snagged on some other gear or piece of plastic. You could live your whole career in service of projects that didn't deserve your loyalty, and of people who might kill you if you stepped out of line. Your own knowledge of misdeed might actually make you crazy, or make you appear crazy, which in many contexts is the same thing. We could all be in mortal jeopardy, or at the very least require quick edification on life-and-death subjects, and our media might not caremight even prefer to repackage righteous outrage as raving lunacy. I came back to Elaine's a day or two later and said how powerful I thought The China Syndrome was as an indictment of what media brokers refuse to air, even at the cost of massive endangerment. Elaine said, "I think it's about something else, which might be worse. I think it's about how even if you did put people on TV who have specialized knowledge to explain a complex danger, and even if they weren't in the midst of a psychic break, the information would be so inscrutable to most of us that we still might not react." So I guess a sense of being elaborately educated yet not educated enough was haunting her, too.
Indeed, The China Syndrome emphasizes the vulnerability of conveyed information almost as often as it stresses the danger and cynicism of suppressing information. The nature and semantic implications of a "shudder," a "shockwave," and a "vibration" turn out to differ starkly. The turbine room is too dark and loud for any conversation or any filming, wittingly or not. The mutual epiphany among three characters in a modest L.A. tract house is rendered largely in isolated close-ups: they're each coming to grips with a problem of horrific scale, but they're somehow not connecting. The best attempts by Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) to explain the calamity or near-calamity at Ventana Power Station, whether at quiet review boards or at the center of a hostage crisis, often come out like Carol White's reading-labels-and-going-into-buildings soliloquy at the end of Safe. When this capsized truth-teller lies on the floor of the sound-proofed control room, bloodied, eyes rolling, murmuring "I feel it!!", he looks and sounds about as reliable as the alien in Species, who claims to feel a baby moving inside her mere seconds after intercourse. Who'd believe him? Yet how could he feel any differently, pushed this far by these particular, gathering forces?
Elaine's reading (as ever, of course, etc.) was more layered and far-reaching than mine, and less congruent with the obvious logline about The China Syndrome you might consolidate into a blurb. Rather than exacerbate my panic of having learned nothing in college, I found this deeply validating of my liberal-arts education: the idea that even a text that seems to say one thing, loudly and urgently, usually says more, and often limns its core implications with corollary ideas that challenge or contradict them. Even if you lack the privilege of an especially brilliant conversation partner, The China Syndrome embodies this lesson that there is more than one side to a story, even when the headline is in boldfaced 96-point font. Consider, for example, the movie's merciless exposure of sexism in broadcasting, which keeps Jane Fonda's Kimberly Wells reporting on singing-telegram companies and tigers' birthday parties even when she's sure she could handle more, and deserves to. To the credit of script and direction, The China Syndrome leaves the exact measure of Kimberly's mettle ambiguous, as does Fonda. Combining her distinctive, straight-backed authority and strong gaze with a palpable mesh of insecurities and self-censorships, Fonda shows us a Kimberly who may not be Christiane Amanpour but knows she isn't a joke, and who isn't above attempting some low-frequency seduction at a workplace party when she thinks it might secure her a reporting gig. The first shots of the movie speak right to the trivialization of women on television, the privileging of cosmetics over content. In their own ways, the final shots are ambiguous on this score. Kimberly has a meltdown on a live feed, which demonstrates the correct ethical response to what she's just witnessed and continues to witness, but also exemplifies the female reporter's worst fear of helpless emotionalism. Her tears, as much as Jack's tirade, are likely to become the story, well beyond the heart-stopping fissures in the plant's infrastructure, and you get the sense she knows it. This is feminist storytelling in a movie that isn't foregrounding feminist themes. The China Syndrome also has a smart hold on class politics, showing how both the mercenary leadership and the subordinated workers at the plant undermine the whistle-blowing manager at an echelon between them: in one case because they see him as disposable, in the other case, personified in Wilford Brimley's quiet but tremendous performance as Ted Spindler, because they see themselves as too disposable to back a losing cause. This trajectory, too, the film handles with great dexterity. The storytelling, no matter how dark, is uncommonly satisfying.
The China Syndrome sometimes appears in concatenated lists of the great pessimistic statements and paranoid thrillers of 1970s Hollywood but rarely feels as fully ensconced in that canon as The Conversation or Dog Day Afternoon or Network. There might be many reasons for this, surely not the least of which is that its grammars and techniques are not as cutting-edge, its performances less flamboyantly virtuosic, its script less rhetorically ornate than in those other three films, respectively. The China Syndrome carries itself to a pitch of personal and political frenzy while sustaining a tradition of story-before-teller narrative cinema that I sometimes short-change in my own predilection for big stylistic risks. More immediate peers like All That Jazz, Apocalypse Now, 1941, and Heaven's Gate are frequently adduced as evidence of the American 70s reaching an apex of ambition and grandeur but also buckling under all that risk and non-governance. Studios, as the story goes, found it no longer viable to float visionary projects that could easily turn out, and sometimes did, to be artistic and financial farragos. Better to blast into a galaxy far, far away with careful corporate oversight and multi-platform franchising than to build an expensive film around something as mercurial as an idea, much less a political position.
The China Syndrome belies all of that. It's 70s cinema without, for better or worse, a blazing directorial imprimatur. It's expansive, socially urgent filmmaking at affordable cost. It's the venue for probably my favorite Jack Lemmon performance, an unusually effective Michael Douglas performance, and maybe my favorite Jane Fonda performance, without seeming to foreground anyone's acting. It's political filmmaking that responds, obviously and less so, to multiple political currents in the culture. (I love how many of the plant managers, board members, and power brokers in the movie are played by actors of color; the key players aren't too diverse, short of a very sympathetic Latino cameraman, but this is not a film with an all-vanilla worldview.) It's as plucked from life as Kramer vs. Kramer, if not more so, and as panic-inducing as The Brood, if not more so. Its concerns were enough to quell the understandable but finally self-indulgent fears of a newly-minted undergraduate, nervous that he misspent an elite education. They also made me grateful for that education, able to see more in texts and in media discourses than seemed to be there, typically with the help of other people who see even further. At the same time, via Elaine's reading, The China Syndrome darkly foretells that restructuring cultural priorities and focusing our attention where it mattersa dream endlessly deferred, seemingly more remote today than in 1999 when I saw the film, or in 1979 when it was madeare only the first steps toward fixing huge problems. Sometimes our apparatus for information and communication isn't just misdirected, it's fundamentally inadequate to crucial tasks. What do we do about that? What can we do? What are you doing?
P.S. I considered adding Silkwood as a companion-text to this entry, given their shared attention to gender, nuclear terror, the instant silencing of those who speak, and the other high tolls of doing the right thing. I rented Silkwood the day I handed in my senior thesis in college; my advisor on that project assured me that I had a diseased notion of "celebrating." As years went by, the movie became more and more important to me, and it probably belongs on this Favorites roster somewhere. But I sensed I was already getting away with too many joint entries, and in any event, The China Syndrome is the one I watch more often, and made the most decisive initial impact. Still, if you haven't seen both, you're only hurting yourself.