Eric's Time Capsule: The China Syndrome (March 16, 1979)

You can tell the value of The China Syndrome by the reasons some people give for hating it, most of which boil down to "it's a liberal movie made by dirty liberals who hate nuclear power and love liberal propaganda." For example, among the one-star reviews from users on Amazon.com is a sarcastic one asserting that it's an anti-nuclear film and thus awful: "Watch this film, develop your anti-science position, vote Nader ... fight nukes, and try mightily to keep people from buying SUVs. Anything else would require effort -- reading books, questioning assumptions, and so on. Such effort would fly directly in the face of your coddled status as ignorant citizen. You have a right to be intellectually lazy -- exercise it!" (In case you don't speak Sarcasm, he's saying it's only ignoramuses who are anti-nuke.)

Another one-star review says this: "The acting was bad and the science was bad. If it weren't that Three Mile Island happened around that time, the film would have been an utter flop. Don't waste your time with this toxic lie." The fact that what happened at Three Mile Island was eerily similar to what happened in the film suggests the film's science wasn't so bad after all, and I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess this viewer didn't really think the acting was bad, either, but simply disagreed with the message he thought the acting was conveying. It's like when your teacher assigns extra homework and your response is to call her ugly, whether she actually is or not.

The China SyndromeThese comments were eye-opening to me, not to mention baffling, after I'd sat riveted watching the movie for the first time. I was not enthralled because I had swallowed the anti-nuke propaganda and live in fear of nuclear meltdowns. For heaven's sake, The Ring is pretty exciting, too, but it's not because I'm afraid of stringy-haired ghosts popping out of my television. Even if nuclear meltdowns were pure fantasy, The China Syndrome would still be a fine thriller. It meticulously explains how the nuclear reactor works, then pits that against something we already know about: human greed, carelessness, and deceit. Whether the science is valid in real life is irrelevant. It's exciting because it's valid to the people in the movie.

And then there is that whole Three Mile Island thing. The China Syndrome opened 30 years ago this week, on March 16, 1979. Twelve days later, a partial meltdown occurred at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in south-central Pennsylvania. Both incidents, the movie one and the Pennsylvania one, were a combination of faulty equipment and human error, and both could have been catastrophic. ("The China syndrome" refers to the theory that if a full meltdown occurred, the radioactive materials would eat through the Earth and keep going until they got to the other side. In practice, what would happen is there'd be a huge explosion that rendered the nearby area -- "the size of Pennsylvania," they say in the movie, a spooky coincidence -- permanently uninhabitable.)

Three Mile IslandAs it turns out, no one was actually hurt in The China Syndrome's mishap or at Three Mile Island. (Debates over long-term effects near Three Mile Island continue.) But the movie and the real-life scare fed on one another. The China Syndrome was a high-profile film with big-name actors (Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, Jack Lemmon), and its tackling of a controversial subject put it on Americans' radar anyway. After Three Mile Island, the film suddenly became prescient, almost unnervingly so. The fact that reliable information about what happened (or almost happened) in Pennsylvania was slow in coming made the public nervous. Suddenly the fictional cover-ups and conspiracies in The China Syndrome seemed frighteningly plausible.

The film became the fourth-highest-grossing movie of 1979, and it doesn't take a genius to see there was a correlation between its success and Three Mile Island. But screenwriter Mike Gray told PBS years later that the first reaction of everyone involved with the film was not to comment on Three Mile Island, lest the public think they were trying to exploit the disaster to sell movie tickets. An article published in 1980 in the media journal Jump Cut notes that when Syndrome's box office didn't experience the customary third-weekend drop-off, producer Michael Douglas and Columbia Pictures got nervous. "We're all very wary of capitalizing in any sense on a tragedy. We will do anything to stay clean," Jump Cut quotes Douglas as saying. Douglas canceled a Tonight Show appearance and Jack Lemmon backed out of a CBS News interview. "The entire China Syndrome publicity campaign came to a screeching halt," according to the journal -- except in the case of Jane Fonda, who had been an anti-nuclear activist for years and wasn't about to let an opportunity like this pass her by.

The filmmakers' reluctance to make hay out of Three Mile Island is noble, but of course it didn't matter -- people made the connection themselves. Gray said that at one of the New York newspapers, reporters were chosen to cover Three Mile Island on the basis of having seen The China Syndrome -- "[it] became a briefing film for the press." Gray himself was able to get a plane ticket into the affected region just hours after the accident on the basis of having been the film's screenwriter. Now that life was imitating art, he was suddenly an expert.

Because of all this, some of the film's other outstanding elements are often overlooked. Lemmon and Fonda were nominated for Oscars, and the screenplay, which won the Writers Guild of America award, is a shining example of how to build tension by slowly revealing information. It's also fascinating to notice how similar the nuclear plant and the TV station are, with their control rooms and specialized lingo, and the way they carefully keep the less telegenic parts just out of view. When Fonda's character, a fluff-news reporter who wants to cover important stories, has to prattle inanely about a tiger's birthday party at the zoo, it's not much different from the nuclear plant public relations officer's canned answers to reporters' questions. The fact that Fonda's experiences at the TV station are remarkably similar to those spoofed in Will Ferrell's Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy only makes The China Syndrome that much more relevant.

(For additional reading on The China Syndrome, visit Turner Classic Movies and Jump Cut.)

FROM THE TIME CAPSULE: When The China Syndrome was released, 30 years ago this week, on March 16, 1979 ...

• On TV, The Dukes of Hazzard, Angie, and Supertrain had recently premiered. All in the Family was about to become Archie Bunker's Place, while What's Happening! and the original Battlestar Galatica were about to go off the air.

Jennifer Love Hewitt• The top song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart was the very fabulous "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor. (Despite its legendary status today, it was only No. 1 for two weeks.) It replaced Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?"

• The Ayatollah Khomeini had seized power in Iran a month earlier. The country would officially become an Islamic Republic on April 1, making it the least funny April Fool's Day joke ever played.

Mena Suvari and Jennifer Love Hewitt were both about a month old. Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine and musician Norah Jones were within days of being born. Heath Ledger's birthday was a few weeks away.

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Eric's Time Capsule appears every Monday at Film.com. You can visit Eric at his website, which also goes straight down to China.