The China Syndrome was released in March 1979 and less than two weeks later the Three Mile Island accident occurred. Pictures and news reports were eerily similar to the film. The problem at the actual nuclear plant was caused, much the same as in the film, by technical failure made worse by human error. I’d never seen The China Syndrome and decided to catch up with it after all the news reports of the escalating problems and potential nuclear catastrophe in Japan.
In the film, Jane Fonda plays an attractive Power of Ambition
television reporter who has been hired mostly for her looks and pleasant manner on camera. She reports on funny human interest stories, cute animal stories and other charming “local color” stories for a local television station.
Fonda wants to advance her career, be taken seriously as a reporter and cover more substantive news but she believes the way to get along is to go along. She’s not one to stand up to or antagonize her bosses. Over the course of the story her backbone stiffens and she pursues an important story at the potential cost of her career.
Michael Douglas is a Power of Truth
freelance camera man. He is a 60’s radical hardened into a 70’s skeptic. He has no problem with being outspoken, even belligerent, and he is quick to dig deeper and take matters into his own hands against his bosses’ instruction. He sees conspiracies and threats around every corner. (Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.)
When filming a puff piece on “energy in California” the two visit a nuclear power plant and are witnesses to some kind of accident. It’s unclear exactly what happened and the company line is that it was a “potentially costly event that was swiftly contained.” Reviewing the footage and the strength of the company’s reaction (and their strong-arming tactics with the television station) prompt Fonda and Douglas to believe a cover-up of epic proportions is underway.
Fonda persuades Jack Lemon, a Power of Conscience
whistleblower at the plant who was involved in the “event,” to share his concerns and warnings. This information would result in a shut-down costing the company multi-millions of dollars. Further dastardly doings ensue as the company goes to the most extreme measures to contain the “radioactive” bad publicity that would shut the plant and “contaminate” their bid to build another nuclear plant in in the state. The China Syndrome
is a fast-paced socially conscious thriller that entertains and is surprisingly contemporary.
Greed, fear and short-cuts are at the heart of a potentially epic disaster in the film. On a much smaller scale I think some combination of those three things are at the heart of almost every self-inflicted human disaster. It’s so easy to grab for more than you need, fear facing the truth and to try to take the easy way out. Each of those things only make the situation worse.
Energy conservation and thrifty sustainable living can be derided as dowdy, too austere and generally no fun. But at its heart overconsumption is grabbing for more than you need, fear of facing the truth and trying to take the easy way out (and believing your actions will never catch up with you). Yes, cold hearted corporations certainly are in for a nice big share of the blame in our current energy and economic problems– but am I taking enough responsibility myself? Why should I expect them to give up their selfish self-centered ways if I am not willing to give up mine. Gandhi famously said: “Be the change you want to see.”