The Good, the Bad, and the Boring in Theater and Other Creative Arts Around and About Hampton Roads, VA.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Revisiting The China Syndrome...
and remembering Three-Mile Island

A few days ago Jala, my partner, brought home a DVD of the film The China Syndrome, which she found in a local thrift store. She thought—correctly, as it turned out—that it would be both entertaining and enlightening for us to revisit it after so many years.

For those who don’t remember, The China Syndrome is the fictional tale of a Los Angeles TV news reporter and her cameraman (Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas), who, while on assignment at a nuclear power plant for a soft news story on the wonders of a cutting-edge technology, happen to witness an accident which the plant owners, in collusion with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), then go to extreme lengths to cover up in order to protect profits rather than admit the likelihood of construction flaws which would require them to shut the plant down for a detailed (and expensive) inspection.

If not for the persistence of the news team and the heroic intervention of the plant’s control-room supervisor (Jack Lemmon), who is willing to blow the whistle, the plant’s reactor core would undoubtedly have melted down and exploded, creating a wasteland over an area, in the movie’s most famous line, “the size of Pennsylvania.”

The China Syndrome was released into theaters on March 16, 1979. On March 28, the world’s first major nuclear power-plant accident occurred in a near-meltdown of the core of one of the two reactors at Three-Mile Island in the Susquehanna River just south of Harrisburg, PA. So stunningly synchronistic with this accident was the movie’s release that some people—my uncle, a retired Episcopalian bishop, among them—believed with no little conviction that Jane Fonda (“Hanoi Jane,” the Vietnam War-era “traitor”) may have somehow engineered the accident as a publicity stunt for the movie!

In any case, Jala and I watched the movie again last night, a nightcap, so to speak, on our Fourth of July, and were struck at how relevant it remains today as a comment on another energy-industry giant whose profit-driven, hubric hindquarters are now exposed in public for all the world to see. I refer, of course, to Big Oil, represented by British Petroleum and its tragic blunder in the Gulf of Mexico—a demonic gift to the world that just keeps on giving.

Near its end The China Syndrome descends into Hollywood spectacle and melodrama. But before it does that it presents us with a long and chilling look at the cozy, interlocking embrace enjoyed among rubber-stamping government agencies and officials, corporate plutocrats, and media-executive puppets. In 1979 this was practically revolutionary material, and though it was up for many awards, including Oscars for Fonda and Lemmon, in the end The China Syndrome was too hot for universal recognition as the prophetic piece it really was.

Yet I’ve read that it grossed the 38th highest box office that year, in no small part because of the accident at TMI, with which it will be inseparably joined for as long as we preserve real history.

Now, in 2010, as the truth oozes out of every new crack in the public-relations wall corporations and government have cemented around their incestuous secrets, The China Syndrome clearly stands the test of time. I’d call it a classic—good entertainment, strong message—and urge any who can find access to it to watch it, whether for the first time or for nostalgia’s sake.

It was remastered and first released as a DVD in 2001 (our thrift-store version), but a later, higher-quality version appeared in 2005. On the website DVD Verdict ( retired Judge Steve Evans, in a highly favorable review of the 2005 version, says, “It’s still astonishing to recall that this film about a malfunctioning nuclear power plant opened less than two weeks before a major accident” at Three Mile Island. “Here is the juncture where art uncannily imitates life, as characters in The China Syndrome advocate some of the same safety procedures that federal regulators would later introduce. (...) No intelligent person can doubt the overpowering influence of greed on business decisions, whether those decisions stem from Enron, Worldcom or the owners of a fictitious nuclear plant in California.”

If he were writing that review today, Judge Evans would no doubt include BP in his short list of most-corrupt corporations.

But why is it this way? 1979 was 31 years ago, and today, in the shadow of this BP disaster, government, relying apparently on the public’s short memory span, is preparing to enable a new generation of nuclear power plants under the pretense that advances in technology since TMI assure that such a thing can never happen again.

Don’t believe it! Read Dr. Helen Caldicott’s incisive book, Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer (The New Press, 2006) or Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (Dalkey Archive Press, 2005). The only difference between the nuclear industry today and the nuclear industry in 1979—accurately reflected in The China Syndrome and witnessed by the world in the industry’s public bobbing and weaving after the TMI accident—is 31 years.

And that leaves us with oil, which is inundating our American southeastern Gulf coast in a mass wipe-out of life down to its most essential, single-celled building-blocks. How far it will spread and how many of us it will impact is an open question. But one thing seems certain. This should be big oil’s TMI. If we don’t enforce it as such, we are a hopeless lot of dunces who do not deserve to graduate from kindergarten.

The China Syndrome reminds us of where we’ve been and, unfortunately, where we would not have had to go since, if only we'd listened—dare I say it?—to our artists!

Rest in peace, Jack Lemmon! Long life to you, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas!