Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Terrifying Coincidence

Jack (Jack Lemmon): What makes you think they're looking for a scapegoat?

Ted (Wilford Brimley): Tradition.

To understand why "The China Syndrome," which hit the theaters 35 years ago today, was so unsettling for movie audiences, it is necessary to understand the times.

Well, not so much the times when the movie was first released. There was no real hoopla that I can recall accompanying the premiere of "The China Syndrome" — other than protests from nuclear companies that the movie amounted to industrial character assassination.

Such claims were not heard 12 days later, when there was a nuclear disaster at a place called Three Mile Island, Pa. It was purely coincidental, but the timing couldn't have been better for the movie. While the performances were great and the story was first rate in "The China Syndrome," Three Mile Island probably deserves a lot of the credit for the movie earning 10 times what it cost to make.

Three Mile Island put everyone on edge, it seemed, and it made "The China Syndrome" the hottest (pardon the pun) movie ticket in every city and town in America.

In that chicken–and–egg conversation, the two subjects became intertwined; over the years, one has hardly heard the movie mentioned without the nuclear accident and vice versa.

In the movie, a TV reporter (Jane Fonda) and her cameraman (Michael Douglas) witnessed a nuclear emergency while at a local nuclear plant to do a story on energy.

Thanks to the quick response by an engineer (played by Jack Lemmon), a worse disaster was prevented.

Fonda's character had her own agenda — she wanted to graduate from doing puff pieces to news with an edge to it, and reporting on a near–disaster was just the thing, but her supervisor refused to allow Fonda to report on it or to show footage that had been filmed on the sly by Douglas.

In the meantime, Lemmon did some research and discovered that all sorts of corners had been cut, leaving the plant vulnerable to a full–scale meltdown (dubbed the "China syndrome" in the movie, describing an incident that would blow the proverbial hole all the way through the earth to China).

Lemmon's character accumulated evidence supporting this and gave it to a soundman from the TV station, who promised to deliver it to Fonda and Douglas — but he was run off the road when trying to deliver it. Knowing that made me wonder if the movie wasn't based only, as advertised, on a 1975 nuclear power plant fire in Alabama — but also, perhaps, a bit on the case of Karen Silkwood, which was later dramatized in a movie starring Meryl Streep.

That event led Lemmon to conclude that his own life was in danger, and he took over the plant at gunpoint, demanding to tell his story on TV.

It was a first–rate thriller, as critic Roger Ebert said, "that incidentally raises the most unsettling questions about how safe nuclear power plants really are."

Those questions still haven't been answered satisfactorily. So often, it seems, the whistleblowers are demeaned and discredited. Why would anyone want to be exposed to that?

One wonders if the questions would have been raised at all had it not been for the coincidental nuclear accident at Three Mile Island.

I also wonder if the performances of Lemmon and Fonda would have been nominated for Oscars if it hadn't been for Three Mile Island. Their performances were good — especially Lemmon's — but I don't know if either was Oscar–worthy.