Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Film #122: The China Syndrome

This whole notion of life imitating art--it really doesn't happen too often. But it certainly happened in 1979, and in an unlikely, timely manner. On March 16th of that year, writer/director James Bridges (at that point most notable for giving us 1974's law school drama The Paper Chase), unleashed The China Syndrome upon American audiences. This taut, expertly-produced thriller imparted the fictional account of Jack Godell, played passionately (if in his typically mannered fashion) by Jack Lemmon. Godell is an engineer at California's Ventana Nuclear Power Plant who has suspicions that faults in the plant's construction might set the stage for a core meltdown that could send radiation spewing into the atmosphere and groundwater. We follow Godell as he bucks stonewalling plant management and leaks Ventana's shaky status to the news media--specifically, KXLA puff-piece news anchor Kimberly Wells (an excellent Jane Fonda) and her cameraman Richard Adams (producer Michael Douglas, in an understated role originally slated for Richard Dreyfuss). This intriguing scenario was considered pure, albeit sobering, fantasy on the part of Hollywood and nuclear power experts--until a scant 12 days after the film's release (very nearly 20 years ago today), when Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear reactor had a similar mishap that caused it and The China Syndrome to remain the subjects of newspaper headlines for the ensuing months (making the connection between the event and the film even more palpable is an onscreen physicist's assertion that an extreme core meltdown--deemed "the China Syndrome"--would render "an area the size of Pennsylvania" permanently uninhabitable; when Michael Douglas made an appearance on Johnny Carson upon the film's release, Johnny quipped "Boy, you sure have one hell of a publicity agent").Stark and scary, The China Syndrome flickered on screens at a time when people needed it the most (though Columbia Pictures did its best to distance the film from the event, so as to look as if they weren't cashing in; it didn't keep the film from box-officing 51 mil--more than 300 mil in today's money). The well-researched screenplay--co-written by Bridges, Mike Grey, and T.S. Cook--simply but effectively explains the then-inscrutable workings and risks of nuclear power, and assays a chilling portrait of the consequences were something to go wrong with the whole precarious set-up. The movie takes cues from other 70s-paranoia classics like The Parallax View and All The President's Men in its deft balance of character, suspense, and political intrigue. The leads in the cast are terrific, but the supporting players provide a whole other level of greatness--among them: James Karen (Poltergeist, Mulholland Dr.) as the TV station's director, Richard Herd as the heartless Ventana manager; James Hampton (The Longest Yard, Sling Blade) as the plant's smiling PR man; and especially good is Wilford Brimley (above right) in his breakout role as Ted Spindler, Lemmon's best friend and co-worker in the Ventana control room (Brimley's final moments on screen are totally shattering).

Lemmon would win the Best Actor award at Cannes for playing the justifiably nerve-wracked Godell; both he and Fonda would nab lead acting nominations at that year's Academy Awards. Bridges' writing team would also get nominations, as would the film's insanely accurate art direction (constructed by imagination only, since no plant would allow reference photos to be taken). Also, try and notice the nearly invisible special effects, rife with matte paintings and extremely convincing miniature work by Henry Millar. Bridges contributes flawlessly as director (he wisely eschewed scoring the picture, making its tense ending completely unforgettable). He'd go on to helm one more box office hit, 1980's John Travolta vehicle Urban Cowboy, and one more critical darling, 1984's Mike's Murder (an extremely underrated mystery starring Debra Winger) before succumbing to failure with the career-killing 1985 aerobics-drama Perfect and 1988's sorry Bright Lights, Big City. He wrote the excellent screenplay to Clint Eastwood's 1990 White Hunter, Black Heart (about the making of The African Queen) before passing away prematurely in 1993. But with The China Syndrome, James Bridges truly made his mark.

And now, may I say: nuclear power still thrives. And is still as dangerous as ever. Sweet dreams.

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