Saturday, June 6, 2009

Nuclear Meltdown

The China Syndrome: Special Edition
Sony // 1979 // 122 Minutes // Rated PG

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“Today, only a handful of people know what it means…Soon you will know.” ~ From the promotional poster.

Opening Shot
An eerily prescient look at big business, politics and nuclear energy, The China Syndrome remains as exciting (and perhaps even more relevant) today as it was a quarter century ago. It’s still astonishing to recall that this film about a malfunctioning nuclear power plant opened less than two weeks before a major accident at a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. The movie plays beautifully both as a taut thriller and social commentary, with inspired work from a perfect cast.

A Bit of Plot…
Jane Fonda stars as an ambitious TV reporter relegated to covering fluff stories in Southern California—until she discovers a massive cover-up at a nearby nuclear power plant. While doing a routine profile on the plant with her rebellious cameraman (Michael Douglas), Fonda witnesses an emergency in the control room. Technicians misread critical monitors, and the core of the plant begins to tremble and quake. The plant engineers barely avoid a nuclear meltdown, although structural flaws in the facility suggest that a much greater problem is waiting to erupt. The TV crew captures the incident on video, but the station owners suppress the footage, fearing a lawsuit from the powerful corporation that owns the nuclear facility.

The plant shift supervisor, Jack Lemmon, realizes there is something terribly, fundamentally wrong with the cooling systems that prevent the reactor from overheating and melting straight through the planet. A reluctant whistleblower, Lemmon at first refuses to talk to Fonda for a story that would expose the plant as a ticking bomb. But he soon has a crisis of conscience that compels him to speak before another accident engulfs Southern California with a lethal cloud of radioactivity. Problem is, the corporation behind the plant is not going to let an inflammatory and expensive issue like public safety get in the way of the bottom line.

Lemmon is the heart and soul of the film, offering a portrait of an anguished man struggling to do the right thing in spite of corporate bureaucracy, and threats to his career and life.

The film veers into thriller territory as shadowy thugs stalk plant employees and threaten the reporters, who are determined to uncover an explosive story of corporate negligence, graft, and corruption.

Historical Context and Significance
The China Syndrome (directed by James Bridges, Urban Cowboy) turned into a must-see phenomenon when the Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred in Pennsylvania 12 days after the movie opened in March 1979. The movie is a fascinating product of its time because of the frightening (and from the producers’ perspective, fortuitous) similarity to the actual accident.

In the film, plant operators rely on an erroneous reading from a malfunctioning meter to gauge the water level used to cool the nuclear core. They come close to triggering a meltdown. This is virtually identical to what happened in Pennsylvania at Three Mile Island, based on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s report:

“The accident began about 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, when the plant experienced a failure in the secondary, non-nuclear section of the plant. The main feedwater pumps stopped running, caused by either a mechanical or electrical failure, which prevented the steam generators from removing heat. First the turbine, then the reactor automatically shut down. Immediately, the pressure in the primary system (the nuclear portion of the plant) began to increase. The accident was caused by a combination of personnel error, design deficiencies, and component failures.”

Because adequate cooling was not available, the nuclear fuel overheated to the point at which the metal tubes holding the nuclear fuel pellets ruptured and the pellets began to melt. Investigators later discovered that about half of the core melted during the accident. But plant operators managed to avoid the worst-case scenario: the melting of nuclear fuel could have breached the walls of the containment building and released massive quantities of radiation into the environment.

Tellingly, the NRC concedes that the accident caught state and federal regulators off guard. New regulations and security measures were put in place following Three Mile Island. Here is the juncture where art uncannily imitates life, as characters in The China Syndrome advocate some of the same safety procedures that federal regulators would later introduce. Perhaps inevitably, it took a real nuclear accident to put more stringent regulations in place.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. The China Syndrome is presented in a vibrant 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. It is a gorgeous print, rich in color and texture, with zero noticeable artifacts (although it is difficult to look beyond those ghastly 1970s fashions when the transfer offers such rich detail). Grain is evident in key scenes, a clear illustration that the film has been remastered in high definition. Audio options include a choice of remixed Dolby 5.1 or the original mono soundtrack in English or French. The 5.1 embellishment is well done, but offers little sonic benefits to the rear channels, as is often the case for older films that have been tricked out with a new sound mix.

Extras are solid, if not overwhelming, for a special edition package. Two documentaries, each running about 30 minutes, offer recollections from every major surviving cast and crew member. The filmographies are a handy reference. The disc also includes a trio of deleted scenes. Two are superfluous, and were wisely left on the cutting-room floor.

Cinematically speaking, Three Mile Island turned The China Syndrome into a blockbuster. If the film received favorable reviews on initial release, that praise paled in comparison to word-of-mouth buzz following a real nuclear accident. Producer-actor Michael Douglas seems to be the only person involved in the making of the film who doesn’t believe the Pennsylvania accident helped the box office. He is disingenuous, at best.

The Contrarian View
Though dated in its left-leaning politics, fashion, social mores and depiction of nuclear technology, The China Syndrome is a riveting thriller with a conscience. It may bleed liberalism (skeptics need look no further than the casting), but the film’s heart is in the right place. No intelligent person can doubt the overpowering influence of greed on business decisions, whether those decisions stem from Enron, Worldcom or the owners of a fictitious nuclear plant in California.

The China Syndrome
remains provocative entertainment 30 years after its release. This special edition DVD is a recommended upgrade for those who purchased the original disc in 2001.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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