New York Times - 18 Mar 79

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
(Copied 23 Aug 09)

Nuclear Plant Is Villain in 'China Syndrome':A Question of Ethics

Published: March 16, 1979

THERE'S probably never been an era when some of the people living in it did not believe that things had gone as far as they should go. When the wheel was invented, there was someone, I'm sure, who groaned and said that now everyone could roll toward disaster just that much more quickly. Evolution is scary. Few of us like to acknowledge that we don't represent the perfect end of the process.

In the atomic age, technology has been accelerating at a rate that leaves many of us exhausted, if not fearful. For someone who hasn't yet learned how to dominate a high-spirited electric typewriter, the thought of nuclear energy—with its potential for good as well as for destruction — turns the imagination into a nervous heap.

It's these apprehensions that are called forth by "The China Syndrome," James Bridges's smashingly effective, very stylish suspense melodrama that opens today at the Loews State 2 and other theaters.

"The China Syndrome," written by Mr. Bridges with Mike Gray and T.S. Cook, evokes the spectacle of the terrifying things that might happen should there be a lapse in the safety procedures at an electrical generating plant powered by nuclear energy. The time is now and the place is southern California. The film is as topical as this morning's weather report, as full of threat of hellfire as an old-fashioned Sunday sermon and as bright and shiny and new-looking as the fanciest science-fiction film.

It stars Jane Fonda as a clever, ambitious television news reporter named Kimberly Wells, a woman who keeps a turtle for a pet, who doesn't let her private life take precedence over her public image and who knows she is not going to make big-time network news by doing chatty features about singing messengers. It also stars Michael Douglas as Richard Adams, Kimberly's cameraman, a 60's radical turned into a 70's skeptic, a fellow who sees conspiracies everywhere, who wants to be a part of the establishment but keeps biting the hand that would feed him.

In the best role he's had in a long time, Jack Lemmon appears as Jack Godell, a key official in the nuclear-energy station where Kimberly and her television crew, on a routine story assignment, happen to witness what the public-relations man blithely calls "a routine turbine trip."

On further investigation, the reporters learn that what they saw was, in fact, far from routine and was, instead, in the jargon of the trade, "a potentially costly event." In this case, "event" means a malfunctioning that could have resulted in a "meltdown" - called the China syndrome - leading in turn to the destruction of the plant and the creation of a radioactive cloud capable of laying waste to half of Southern California.

Could this happen? I've no idea, but the film makes a compelling case based on man's not-so-rare predisposition to cut corners, to take the easy way out, to make a fast buck, to be lazy about responsibility and to be awed by the authority representing vested interests.

"The China Syndrome" is less about laws of physics than about public and private ethics. The film isn't only concerned with safety procedures, but also with the ethics of a certain kind of journalism that packages news that won't offend. Also, in the course of the story, both Kimberly Wells, woman reporter, and Jack Godell, who has dedicated his life to the priesthood of technology, must make decisions that have the effect of denying all they've done before.

However, "The China Syndrome" doesn't keep us on the edges of our seats because it's so uplifting. Mr. Bridges, who wrote the screenplay for a fine little sci-fi film called "The Forbin Project" and most recently directed the James Dean elegy, "September 30, 1955," is a gifted and witty melodramaticist. There is suspense almost from the film's start in a television newsroom, and it builds without much letup until the finale. He has an ear for the way people talk, an eye for the pressed-plastic look of our transistorized world and sympathy for minor dishonesties that can suddenly shape the way people behave when faced with major problems.

The three stars are splendid, but maybe Miss Fonda is just a bit more than that. Her performance is not that of an actress in a star's role, but that of an actress creating a character that happens to be major within the film. She keeps getting better and better.

"The China Syndrome," which has been rated PG ("Parental Guidance Suggested"), contains some mildly vulgar language.