The China Syndrome: Corruption to the Core

By McMullen, Wayne J | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 1995 | Go to article overview

The China Syndrome: Corruption to the Core


McMullen, Wayne J, Literature/Film Quarterly


The fuel heats beyond core tolerance in a matter of minutes. Nothing can stop it. It melts right down through the bottom of the plant-theoretically to China, but of course, as soon as it hits ground water, it blasts into the atmosphere and sends out clouds of radioactivity. The number of people killed would depend on which way the wind was blowing, rendering an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.

-Dr. Elliot Lowe, a character in The China Syndrome

Introduction

Once the United States dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the world psyche was faced with the unprecedented task of coming to terms with a viable means of complete annihilation. Subsequent to the end of World War II, the United States, Soviet Union, and other nations began looking for ways to harness the nuclear fission process for peaceful purposes, namely the development of nuclear fission as a means of producing electricity on a large scale. Gas shortages in 1973 and 1979 served as a painful reminder of the West's dependence on oil from OPEC nations, intensifying the push for the domestic development of alternative fuels. Before the Three Mile Island incident in 1979 and the subsequent Chemobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, nuclear energy seemed a probable, if expensive, alternative. Citizen opposition to the use of nuclear technology existed, but plant construction continued. In the midst of this context and controversy emerged The China Syndrome. Columbia Pictures released The China Syndrome in March 1979 to mostly positive reviews and enthusiastic box offices. While the film was widely regarded as a well-crafted suspense thriller, little attention has been given to how the film addresses issues related to corporate greed and nuclear energy. In this essay, I show how The China Syndrome conveys implicit and explicit messages about nuclear power, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, large utility companies, and the construction companies that build these nuclear plants.

Doubtless, the film is disturbing and troublesome to proponents of peaceful uses of nuclear power. At the very minimum, The China Syndrome questions the safety of nuclear power, and certainly challenges the large corporations which build the facilities and make electrical energy from nuclear fission. Opponents of nuclear energy find their beliefs reinforced by the film; proponents instinctively realized The China Syndrome's potential persuasive power and wrote unfavorable articles about the film's ethics.1

The now infamous accident at Three Mile Island on March 28, 1979, twelve days after the release of the film, gave the film an astounding timeliness and, consequently, a whopping box office response. However, even if the accident at Three Mile Island had never occurred, the film would scarcely have gone unnoticed. Nearly all the reviews examined, positive and negative alike, agree that The China Syndrome is powerfully effective entertainment.2 Jane Fonda (Kimberly Wells) turned in a sharply etched and enthusiastic performance as an ambitious, young television feathernews reporter who, while seeking to further her career by advancing into hard news, develops a higher consciousness both about the abuses of power and her responsibility to expose it. Michael Douglas (Richard Adams) plays a station cameraman who suspects an information cover-up by the utility. His performance vividly captures the enraged liberal who vocally protests the apparent abuses of power. Jack Lemmon (Jack Godell), as the conscientious, knowledgeable and hard-working shift supervisor, "is outstanding as an essentially lonely man who has built his life around his dials and gauges, and then learns that they have been programmed from the start to deceive him" (Schickel 54). The China Syndrome is a treasure-trove of minor roles as well. The film is graced with George Jenkins's first-class production design, particularly his meticulously recreated control room. …

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