Welcome to “Back-Filling,” a (semi) regular feature in which I see movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.
In one of those strange cases of precipitous timing and wild coincidence, James Bridges’s The China Syndrome was released a mere 12 days before the partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania—an accident not far removed from the dangers hinted at in the film. That particular historical context gives the film a specific feel; not documentary, necessarily, but certainly a time capsule—and I’m not just talking about the late 70s duds and the loathsome soft rock opening credit song by Stephen Bishop. When we’re in the control room of the Los Angeles TV station where Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) works, or back in the station’s film development lab (can you imagine?) with cameraman Richard (Michael Douglas), it feels like we’re getting an inside look at the way things used to be; when she mentions, in her on-camera stand-up, the country’s growing need for “energy self-sufficiency,” well, that part’s a little sad.
The opening sequence, in which they witness a very close call at the nuclear power plant, still packs a gut punch—it suffocates the viewer with quiet tension. But there’s plenty of psychological subtext happening here, enriching the somewhat straightforward telling. A station suit says of Kimberly, “she’s is a performer” (not a journalist); he tells her “not to worry your pretty head about it.” But she’s not a performer, and not a twinkie; she’s got a real story, and the smarts to investigate it properly. We see that in the scene where a chance encounter with plant supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) turns into an edgy interview; she plays him a little, but also sees that he’s an honest man, and feels obligated to, at the very least, not lie to her.
In its broad strokes, The China Syndrome is fairly predictable, but it’s so engrossing, that hardly matters. Though it may try a little too hard to be All the President’s Men (particularly in its closing moments), this is a smooth, intelligent, professional thriller.