China Syndrome, The (1979)

China Syndrome, The (1979)

“There is no conspiracy, there is no cover-up.”

A TV journalist (Jane Fonda) and her cameraman (Michael Douglas) discover that all is not well at a local nuclear power plant. While it’s clear the plant supervisor (Jack Lemmon) is alarmed by an accident that’s taken place, he’s hesitant to speak out given warnings by his boss (Scott Brady) — but Fonda and Douglas are determined to unearth and expose the truth.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Amateur Sleuths
  • Corruption
  • Jack Lemmon Films
  • James Bridges Films
  • Jane Fonda Films
  • Journalists
  • Michael Douglas Films
  • Nuclear Threat
  • Strong Females

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “cautionary film about the possibilities of a meltdown at a nuclear plant” — featuring “sharp direction by James Bridges” — “achieved tremendous box office success not only because of its quality and the integrity of the filmmakers and stars, but also because the accident at Three Mile Island happened just when the picture was released”. Peary argues that “Lemmon’s performance is too mannered, and [the] film’s ending (outside the plant) doesn’t have Fonda or anyone else making the necessary strong statements (it’s as if the filmmakers backed off)” — both opinions I disagree with. Lemmon’s performance is as strong as ever, fully grounding his “side” of the story, and I find the ending eerily opaque. Peary does write that “otherwise this is a sold film, proof you can make an exciting movie that has political relevance” — though he once again quibbles that “it would have made a stronger antinuclear statement if the plant were unsafe despite meeting NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] standards”. He adds that “Fonda has one of her best roles, another of her smart but naive women who break out of a secure world and risk looking foolish to learn what’s going on.” I also appreciate Douglas’s small but vital role as a determined videographer who secretly films the nuclear plant accident despite being told not to (his actions remind one of modern-day phone-cam users recording pivotal interactions on the sly), and who will stop at nothing to make the evidence available.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jane Fonda as Kimberly Wells
  • Michael Douglas as Richard Adams
  • Jack Lemmon as Jack Godell

Must See?
Yes, as a still-compelling story and for the fine performances.


  • Noteworthy Performance(s)


2 thoughts on “China Syndrome, The (1979)

  1. A classic conspiracy, paranoia thriller. Brilliant in all departments and a no-brainer must see.

  2. A no-brainer must-see – and in total agreement with the assessment.

    This is (I think) the 4th time I’ve seen the film over the years; it remains powerful (esp. considering Chernobyl – and how the film resonates in the HBO series on that disaster) and it plays like a bat out of hell.

    I particularly agree re: the strength of the performances – everyone is at the top of their game.

    The script is strong in its detail. There’s also a significant underlying riff on misogyny re: Fonda’s character – a few of the male characters reveal their sexist opinion of her: her co-anchor refers to her as “the redhead”; one of her bosses talks down to her, telling her “not to worry your pretty head”; even Lemmon – long before he has his own epiphany about… everything – answers her reporter questions with “You wouldn’t understand.”

    Overall, a perfect exploration of dangerous human error.

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