Released around the time of the Three Mile Island accident in Harrisburg, The China Syndrome begins with a news crew filming a feature at the Ventana Nuclear Power Plant in California. Of course, something goes wrong and the nuclear core is almost uncovered. The cameraman, played by a bearded Michael Douglas, turns his camera on without anyone realizing it, filming the whole accident from the control room's perspective. The problem is solved though without too much damage and soon enough the plant is back on-line.
Typically starring in comedies, Jack Lemmon steps up in a big way in this thriller as a shift supervisor in the control room. He thinks there's something more going on with the pump, and that if too much pressure is placed on the pump everything goes kaboom and nuclear clouds are released all over the state. Lemmon was nominated for his performance, and rightfully so, as a man who has worked for many years at this plant and doesn't want to see something horrific happen because the powers that be are worried about losing money and are willing to sacrifice possibly hundreds of thousands people.
Also earning a nomination is Jane Fonda as Kimberly Miller, a field reporter for a TV station who is given fluff assignments which brings in lots of viewers. Miller aspires to be an investigative reporter but is being held back because she's so successful with her light, happy stories. So when a problem arises with Lemmon's Jack Godell and the power plant, she has two reasons to seek out the story, career-wise and the obvious one of, well, you know, survival.
Labeling The China Syndrome as a disaster movie isn't really fair I guess. It's more so what could happen, the threat of what would happen if a nuclear power plant went through a meltdown. But the tension is there because I wasn't quite sure how far the movie was going to take the storyline. The ending is surprising, but it leaves the big picture to your interpretation. Highly enjoyed this 70s thriller!
Here's the first scene from the movie, sets the stage for what's to come.