Color, 1979, 122 mins. 9 secs.
Directed by James Bridges
Starring Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, Jack Lemmon Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK R0 HD), Image Entertainment (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Sony (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
A prime slice of '70s paranoia that turned out to be far more realistic than audiences expected, The China Syndrome came near the end of a wave of thrillers like The Parallax View, All the President's Men, and Three Days of the Condor. This time the subject matter wasn't shady government activity but the dangerous inner workings of nuclear power plants, whose regulation process was thought by many to pose a threat to the public welfare on a terrifying scale. Mildly controversial in the days leading up to its opening, the film was enough of a high-toned Hollywood production to find an audience right away with Jane Fonda, the most famous and talented leading actress of the day, ensuring plenty of serious press coverage. Less than two weeks later, the real-life Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania proved how believable the film's premise actually was, with the headlines reflecting the chilling subject matter as it was still running in theaters.
Eager to break out of the fluff stories she's assigned by her station, TV reporter Kimberly Wells (Fonda) is accompanied by cameraman Richard Adams (Douglas) to a California nuclear reactor just as an emergency procedure is underway. During the process, Jack Goodell (Lemmon), the chief engineer on duty, is troubled by vibrations suggesting a misreading in the coolant levels, which he later investigates and discovers leaking radioactive water. Richard's footage of the control room, though ordered not to be shared, tips off the news team that the plant is dangerously unsafe and could pose a major risk if it opens prematurely. The paths of all three cross as the impending plant reopening approaches, and the powers that be are not above using intimidation to keep them silent.
Still a deeply unsettling film with ramifications that have only intensified since the Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi disasters, The China Syndrome is a textbook example of how to package a social message within a satisfying suspense film. Still a fairly new theatrical director after cutting his teeth on some exceptional TV episodes, James Bridges came into his own here as a director with what would prove to be his last significant commercial and critical hit. Interestingly, the film also casts a suspicious eye on journalism with the station trying to swerve the direction of the story and suppress elements of it, a sign of what was to come after the more typical rah-rah portrayals of the media (apart from Network) that had been the status quo. The film is also a great showcase for its supporting cast including Scott Brady, a very young Wilford Brimley, and perhaps most interestingly, James Karen (Return of the Living Dead), first spied in the newsroom opening whose framing echoes that of the same year's Dawn of the Dead.
Regularly available on home video since its 1980 VHS release, The China Syndrome hit DVD in two editions from Sony, first as a bare bones edition in 1999 and then as a special edition in 2004. The latter sported two featurettes, staring off with "A Fusion of Talent" (27m36s) with Douglas, Fonda, executive producer Bruce Gilbert, and Bridges' partner, Jack Larson discussing how two different stories ended up being fused together, how Fonda's part emerged (with Richard Dreyfuss getting dropped along the way), and how the film tapped into the activist attitudes of the era. "Creating a Controversy" (29m35s) features the same participants exploring the controversy of tackling a film about nuclear power, an industry that was less than thrilled with the production and proved to be very embarrassed by the events soon to come. The first Blu-ray was released from Image Entertainment in 2014 as part of its deal with Sony, porting over both featurettes and featuring an excellent HD transfer supplied by the studio as well as a new DTS-HD MA 5.1 English mix that uses the music and effects track to moderately spacious effect.
Proving that there was still plenty of room left for an expanded edition, the Indicator Blu-ray released in the U.K. carries over the featurettes while using the same Sony transfer with a more generous encoding job that results in the most satisfying presentation to date. The 5.1 mix is also present along with the original mono mix (LPCM) as well as a third audio option, a 1973 John Player Lecture appearance by Jack Lemmon (running 80 minutes) covering his Hollywood career from his thoughts on fellow actors (his choice for the most intelligent one is a great one) and his big breaks into dramatic acting including Days of Wine and Roses. Obviously he doesn't touch on this film yet since it was still six years off, but it's a great insight into the genial actor's personality and career. The new "Assessing the Fallout" (17m35s) covers the evolution of the film and its cultural significance courtesy of Professor Tony Shaw, including the subsequent nuclear perils it anticipated and its appropriation as footage on news broadcasts. The theatrical trailer is included along with three deleted scenes (3m56s), adding a bit of business for Lemmon and showing Fonda dealing with some really icky sexism at a party. As usual, the insert booklet is a major extra in itself, featuring a new essay by Neil Sinyard (including a great reading of some subtle ambiguity in the ending), a Gergely Hubai overview of the rejected score by Michael Small, a sample of newspaper comments from the cast and crew's press junkets, an archival Cineaste interview with Gilbert, and a pair of sample reviews from the film's original release.