On visiting the Ventura nuclear power plant, journalist Kimberley Wells (Jane Fonda) and her cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) find themselves witnessing and experiencing a major emergency when something goes wrong with a turbine malfunctioning causing the plant to go through the procedure of an emergency shutdown. This shows that the plant isn’t as safe as the plant’s management would have everyone believe. Whilst this was going on Adams secretly films the whole thing.
When a superior at the TV station where they work won’t let the secret footage be televised, Adams decides to steal the footage from the station’s vault room and show it to experts who can say exactly what happened at the plant and how dangerous it was. They say that the plant narrowly avoided a ‘china syndrome’ in which the plant’s core would have melted down into the ground, hit water there and emitted radioactive steam into the atmosphere which could have spread over a considerable radius.
Add to this that the plant employee who helped avoid this catastrophic event happening, Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) also sees other signs that all is not well at the plant including a pool of radioactive water that has leaked from a pump and radiograph images of welds and how strong they are that are identical showing that the same one was just submitted again and again.
A quest to get the truth out then ensues with potentially life threatening obstacles being placed in our protagonist’s way. And this is a major theme within the film- should the truth be exposed and will the truth be exposed.
With this premise firmly in place the film becomes a prime (and brilliant) example of paranoid 70’s cinema alongside films like The Parallax View- movies that show once trusted organisations containing people in positions of power that may now have their own darker agendas once corruption and money have clouded affairs.
Within the film theres also a subtle and very perceptive look at gender roles in the workplace and the glass ceiling actively in operation. Kimberley Wells wants to televise this story as firstly, she wants the truth to come out for the good of everyone but also because she wants to make the move into serious journalism. Wells is seen by the station as someone who is ‘paid to smile and not think’ (as the trailer perceptively states) as we see the kind of stories that she gets to report on- usually end of the night, lighthearted piffle designed to lift viewer’s hearts after the more serious, ‘real’ news has been reported.
The film is another example of a 70’s movie that shows California very well indeed. The cinematography is brilliant with the highways and landscapes looking especially beautiful.
Finally, The China Syndrome is also a very important film as it’s one of Jane Fonda’s best ‘Hair-Do Hall of Fame’ movies. Her tsunami of red hair is just as iconic and epoch-defining as her Klute feather cut or her 9 To 5 do. Just sayin’.
4 stars out of 5.