The 70’s was a tumultuous time in modern American History; the hugely unpopular Vietnam War was coming to a close; The Watergate scandal saw the American Presidency embroiled in corruption, and the worlds international financial markets were headed towards collapse. Man has often created ways to push the destruction of society within a gasp of reality. The 70’s were arguably mankind’s luckiest decade: a period in history where we can look back and think “thank fu*k we dodged that one”.
I wasn't alive in 1979 when the thriller blockbuster “The China Syndrome” was released. The film was really an exclamation point on the preceding five or so years in the development of nuclear technology, it also signalled the real first signs that Greed and Power could ultimately destroy mankind. Nuclear power plants were springing up allover the United States, Russia and parts of Europe and they were expensive to run; the balance between safety and fiscal success was teetering on disaster. Nuclear energy had already proven its ability to cause mass destruction as early as the 1940’s with the atrocities committed on Hiroshima and other cities in Japan. The American’s were continuing to play with nuclear fire and chances are someone would be burnt increased with every passing decade.
The plot of 'The China Syndrome' captures this sentiment perfectly. It follows news reporter Kimberley Wells (Jane Fonda) as she and her cameraman Richard Adam’s (Michael Douglas) are witness to, and covertly record, an ‘Incident’ within a nuclear power plant whilst researching a story on alternative energy sources. The power plant’s shift manager Jack Dodell (Jack Lemmon) needs to decide between his loyalty to his work or his guilty conscience about disclosing the incident’s real magnitude. What plays out is an edge of your seat thriller that keeps you entangled right to the end.
I’ll admit my internal film Wikipedia had not previously registered the name James Bridges (director), after some research it was plain to see the guy knows his craft. Making only 8 films (Big Lights Big City), and all in the last 20 years of his life, Bridges utilises a number of unconventional techniques to tell his story. The biggest surprise for me was his choice to remove any musical score or sound track instead relying entirely on ambient noises. Any additional sound is produced by devices such as radio or TV commercials the result being that the only sounds we hear are those the characters hear. The technique is daring but it pays off by quickly building suspense. Other films have tried this technique only to add small snippets of strings or horns in one or two scenes; the Coen Brothers “No Country for Old Men” is a good example of this.
Jack Lemmon’s performance was nominated for an Oscar and rightfully so. He was amongst the best actors to ever do both drama and comedy at the highest level. There is not much one can say about Jack that hasn’t really been said. I will, however, ensure that I dig out some of his work that I haven’t seen as the year goes on.
'The China Syndrome’s' success for me was its ability to hold a mirror up to those profiting from sale of Nuclear energy. In 1979 just 13 days after the film was released disaster struck. As if just to highlight how topical The China Syndrome was, The United States experienced its worst nuclear accident on 3 Mile Island. More recently events in Japan have highlighted that the risk of nuclear power is still as topical as it was in the 70’s proving mankind’s greatest threat is mankind itself.