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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
The China Syndrome (1979)

"No accident."
- Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: December 01, 2004

Stars: Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas
Director: James Bridges

MPAA Rating: PG
Run Time: 02h:02m:13s
Release Date: October 26, 2004
UPC: 043396067080
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B A-B-B C+

DVD Review

It's pretty much impossible to talk about this movie without immediately making reference to Three Mile Island. In an uncanny coincidence that would be wicked cool if it weren't so dangerous, the theatrical release of The China Syndrome, the fictional story about an accident at a nuclear power plant in Southern California, happened almost simultaneously with an actual accident, at a nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a set of circumstances that made Jungians out of everyone, suggesting that we live in a synchronistic universe. This unfolding of events made the movie seem prescient, even clairvoyant; obviously the calendar of a Hollywood production schedule make it impossible to have today's theatrical release respond directly to yesterday's headlines, but The China Syndrome served to harden and codify the deeply held suspicions about the domestic uses of nuclear power in a substantial percentage of our population.

Looking back on it now without the pulse of being the lead story on the news, it's still a pretty good movie, if a bit overdone in spots; its legacy is certainly more political than artistic, but it's a pretty sturdily fashioned piece of work. Jane Fonda plays Kimberly Wells, a blow-dried correspondent for a Los Angeles affiliate, who wants to cover hard news, and not just the stories of the weird and wacky; Michael Douglas is her stereotypically cynical cameraman. Together, in a bid of journalistic legitimacy, they're producing a series on energy in California, and that means it's time for a trip to the nuclear power plant nearby; despite the best efforts of the P.R. folks at the plant to paint a picture that's just honky dory, something goes awfully awry in the plant's control room with the camera crew there, and Douglas captures it all on tape. Was this just a little glitch, as the suits would tell us, or is there a greater danger lurking?

Kimberly befriends and interviews Jack Godell, the old hand who runs the plant; he's not just talking the talk, but wants to find out just what the hell happened. Jack Lemmon, as Godell, gives a performance very much in keeping with his body of work, which was always at a very high level; no one in American movies was ever better or more true as a company man, the guy on whom the office tensions are bearing down, and in that respect, Godell is in line with other Lemmon characters from The Apartment to Save the Tiger to Glengarry Glen Ross. Douglas doesn't get a whole lot to do, but he's fine; his more notable contribution to the project may have been as the film's producer, as this was the first picture he produced after his maiden effort, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Fonda is fine, too, though the inside baseball of politics at her television station is one of the less appealing strains of the movie.

Things lurch toward the melodramatic—admittedly, when the stakes are this high, some melodrama may be called for, but at times it's almost as if the bad guys, corporate or otherwise, should be twirling their Snidely Whiplash moustaches, and the second half of the movie is a little heavy with car chases and shootouts. But the dangers inherent in nuclear power plants so close to major population centers are made palpable, and they haven't gone away; your faithful reviewer writes this in close proximity to Indian Point, a nuclear power plant close by New York City with no realistic evacuation plan for the surrounding population in the event of an attack or accident. The line that got all the attention back in the day comes from an expert in the film, who talks about what would happen if the core of the nuclear reactor were to be exposed; it would "render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable," and the resonances regarding Three Mile Island were chilling. Those fears, we are told, have been allayed or are unfounded; but even if it creaks a little bit, The China Syndrome remains politically provocative, especially as we consider the enormous costs we pay as Americans for a lack of energy independence.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The colors look pretty bleached out; and that seems to be not an aesthetic choice, but a fading with the years that's all too prevalent in films made in the 1970s. The transfer is an adequate one, but it lacks sparkle or heft.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: There's some bad period looping in many dialogue scenes, and unfortunately the audio transfer makes the limits of the period technology that much more transparent. Still, all the dialogue is clear, more or less, and the dynamics are impressive.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Japanese, Chinese, Thai with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Fog of War, Fail Safe, Secret Window
3 Deleted Scenes
2 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Two accompanying documentaries are the meatiest extras here. The first, A Fusion of Talent (27m:34s), features new interviews with, among others, Douglas, Fonda, and executive producer Bruce Gilbert, and traces the development of the project—Douglas saw it as a monster movie, and Fonda was looking for the right vehicle in which to express the convictions of her very public activism. (She was inspired in part by the story of Karen Silkwood, but couldn't secure the rights.) Everybody unsurprisingly speaks with particular fondness about Lemmon; it seems to have been a particular thrill for Fonda, for Lemmon co-starred with her father back in the day in Mr. Roberts. Footage from the same interviews shows up in Creating a Controversy (29m:32s), which looks more closely at the details of the physical production, including the use of miniatures, matte paintings and production design. The only real problem with these documentaries is that Douglas shares an unfortunate verbal tic with our President; "nuclear" comes out as "nucular."

A package (03m:51s) of three deleted scenes don't contain any hidden gems; filmographies are for Fonda, Lemmon, Douglas, and director James Bridges.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

Nothing can recapture the danger and prescience of the original theatrical release of The China Syndrome, but if haircuts today are less shaggy and lapels aren't as wide, it's still got all kinds of relevance, and it features a lead performance by Jack Lemmon that is among that fine actor's very best work.


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