News reporter Kimberly Wells was hired,
For her pretty face and the ratings it drew.
Hard news is the journalist’s grail desired,
Dauntless and brand new.
She discovers just such a story when she’s
Sent to film a nuclear power station.
Sudden shutdown captured on film may displease
That corporation.
Cautious Jack Godell at the plant is worried:
Noises from the accident he alone fears.
Work to bring the plant back online is hurried;
Nobody there hears.
Those behind the overpriced project will block
Whistleblowers trying to thwart their tactic.
Brave Godell’s forced warnings yet hope to cause shock
With stunt climactic.

(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem written in a specific quatrain called a Sapphic, which I employed above. Tricky.)

Ironically, The China Syndrome is a film neither about China nor a disease, but rather an anti-nuclear thriller which acted as a forerunner to 1983’s Silkwood, sharing some of its themes. In fact, its early production grew from Jane Fonda’s desire to make a film about Karen Silkwood, though she eventually joined forces with Michael Douglas to create a fictional plotline informed by fact. Fonda and Douglas both star in the film as well, the former as a conflicted reporter tired of fluff news and the latter as her opinionated cameraman, who films an unexpected “accident” at the Ventana power plant in California. While both are eager to report the furtively obtained film, the bosses at both the news station and Ventana refuse to allow its release, even as Jack Godell (an exceptional Jack Lemmon) uncovers threats to the plant’s safety no one will take seriously.

Since it was recommended to me by my VC (who loves the young Michael Douglas in a beard), I knew from the start that The China Syndrome would have an anti-nuclear message, with which I was prepared to find fault since I personally do not object to nuclear energy and believe it to be safer than many critics imagine. As Douglas’s Richard Adams (not the author of Watership Down) vehemently decries the “cover-up” of the news station heads, I couldn’t help agreeing with his bosses. Just as we the viewers don’t fully understand all the technical jargon, Richard and Kimberly didn’t either. What they filmed was in no way definitive, lacking both sound and context, and to report it would have been professionally irresponsible, throwing volatile news out there just because it happened. Since the incident was also being investigated by the proper authorities, Richard’s eagerness to point an accusatory finger at Ventana seemed overly biased. However, as Godell’s complaints build up and roadblocks grow in the way of their next plant, Ventana’s subsequent actions become truly deserving of reproach. In scenes reminiscent of the end of Silkwood, the cronies attempt to silence dissent, pushing Godell to a breaking point as he hopes to bring them down with him.

As an anti-nuclear commercial, The China Syndrome failed to convince me, probably due to my conflicting bias, but I was pleased that it didn’t preach. As a film, it’s riveting, particularly toward the end, and every actor makes the most of each meaty role, evoking nuances and moral dilemmas that are not easily overcome. I’m no fan of Jane Fonda, but her skills are well-utilized to portray both Kimberly’s perky on-camera persona and her intuitive desire to be a hard-hitting journalist. She, as well as the set decoration and original screenplay, garnered Oscar nominations, but the most deserving was the Best Actor nomination for Jack Lemmon. His tragic performance becomes progressively more powerful, as he hesitates to challenge his superiors and eventually threatens everyone in order for the truth to be told.

In the end, despite its cast of anti-nuclear advocates, The China Syndrome (named after the theorized worst-case scenario of a nuclear core meltdown) becomes for me a condemnation not of nuclear power in general, but of the bureaucratic cutting of corners. The plant had an initial problem, which should have been swiftly corrected, but, despite all the fears of the plant being unsafe, its own built-in systems worked as they should have. The true issue lay in greedy executives trying to save money at the cost of human safety, an issue that applies outside the nuclear industry as well.

In one of the eeriest instances of life imitating art, the similar Three Mile Island nuclear incident occurred days after The China Syndrome’s release, which served to bolster the film’s revenue by making it even timelier. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, whether it be for movies or precarious forms of energy, and even if I disagree somewhat with its underlying message, I found this nuclear film to be anything but a bomb.

Best line: (Jack, during the investigation) “What makes you think they’re looking for a scapegoat?”  (his friend Ted Spindler, played by Wilford Brimley) “Tradition.”

Rank: List-Worthy

© 2015 S. G. Liput

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