The China Syndrome (1979)

PG | 122 mins | Drama | 1979

Director:

James Bridges

Producer:

Michael Douglas

Cinematographer:

James Crabe

Editor:

David Rawlins

Production Designer:

George Jenkins

Production Company:

IPC Films
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HISTORY

The original title was The China Syndrome, according to a 6 Mar 1978 LAT article. During production, the project was known under the working titles of Eyewitness and Power, as indicated in 8 Feb 1978 briefs from the DV and HR.
       End credits include the following written statement and acknowledgement: “The China Syndrome was filmed on location in Los Angeles, California, and at the Sunset-Gower Studios; The producers wish to thank the City of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power for their cooperation."
       A 11 Mar 1979 NYT article traced the development of the project, which began in Apr 1976 when writer and documentary filmmaker Mike Gray offered his original screenplay to actor-producer Michael Douglas, soon after Douglas’s success with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, see entry). Douglas initially turned down the project because Gray wanted to direct, but within months Douglas reconsidered and hired writer T. S. Cook to refine the script.
       Actors Jack Nicholson and Robert Redford declined the starring role of “Jack Godell”, but Jack Lemmon “‘flipped for it,’” recalled Douglas in the NYT article. Lemmon had been involved in anti-nuclear advocacy, including narrating a 1971 television documentary, Powers That Be, about the dangers of reactors. Actor Richard Dreyfuss consented to play the other major character, a documentary filmmaker who witnesses the near-catastrophe at the power plant. In early versions of the script, there was no leading female character. In Mar 1977, Columbia Pictures acquired the project ... More Less

The original title was The China Syndrome, according to a 6 Mar 1978 LAT article. During production, the project was known under the working titles of Eyewitness and Power, as indicated in 8 Feb 1978 briefs from the DV and HR.
       End credits include the following written statement and acknowledgement: “The China Syndrome was filmed on location in Los Angeles, California, and at the Sunset-Gower Studios; The producers wish to thank the City of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power for their cooperation."
       A 11 Mar 1979 NYT article traced the development of the project, which began in Apr 1976 when writer and documentary filmmaker Mike Gray offered his original screenplay to actor-producer Michael Douglas, soon after Douglas’s success with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, see entry). Douglas initially turned down the project because Gray wanted to direct, but within months Douglas reconsidered and hired writer T. S. Cook to refine the script.
       Actors Jack Nicholson and Robert Redford declined the starring role of “Jack Godell”, but Jack Lemmon “‘flipped for it,’” recalled Douglas in the NYT article. Lemmon had been involved in anti-nuclear advocacy, including narrating a 1971 television documentary, Powers That Be, about the dangers of reactors. Actor Richard Dreyfuss consented to play the other major character, a documentary filmmaker who witnesses the near-catastrophe at the power plant. In early versions of the script, there was no leading female character. In Mar 1977, Columbia Pictures acquired the project with Gray still signed as director.
       When Dreyfuss withdrew in a disagreement over salary, Douglas approached actress Jane Fonda with the idea of changing Dreyfuss’s role to a female television reporter. Fonda, an anti-nuclear activist, had already been pursuing the subject matter. Two years previously, she had tried without success to obtain film rights to the story of Karen Silkwood, who died in suspicious circumstances while exposing nuclear safety issues. The project was later made into the 1983 film Silkwood starring Meryl Streep (see entry).
       With Fonda’s involvement, The China Syndrome became a co-production between Michael Douglas and IPC Films, the company founded by Fonda and Bruce Gilbert, who is credited as executive producer. As the project developed into a more complex film with three major stars and a budget that would eventually reach $6 million, the producers replaced Gray, who had never directed a feature, with writer-director James Bridges. In the 11 Mar 1979 NYT article, Bridges recalled that he initially turned down the opportunity in Jul 1977 over fears of not being “‘politically intelligent enough.’” However, less than month later, Fonda and the others convinced him, noting that the project was first and foremost an entertaining thriller. As a screenwriter, Bridges was responsible for revising the script to incorporate Fonda’s character and the television news sub-plot.
       According to publicity material in the AMPAS library files, Fonda researched her character “Kimberly Wells” by shadowing Los Angeles, CA, news reporters, Kelly Lange, Heidi Shulman, Jackie King and Robin Groth. Douglas said in a 16 Mar 1979 NYT article that he based his character “Richard Adams” on KNBC cameraman Bob Brown, who was murdered while on assignment covering the Jonestown commune in Guyana, South America.
       Nuclear technical advisors, engineers Gregory Minor, Richard Hubbard and Dale Bridenbaugh, were credited onscreen under the name of their consulting firm, MHB Technical Associates. After leaving General Electric in 1976, they established MHB to address problems of nuclear power. The character of the nuclear engineer who helps analyze the Ventana accident footage is named “Greg Minor.” As explained in the 11 Mar 1979 NYT article, the advisors modeled the various malfunctions in the film on actual documented incidents that had occurred at nuclear plants, such as a 1970 accident at the Dresden plant in IL, where a stuck indicator misled operators about the reactor water level.
       According to an 11 Jan 1978 DV brief, principal photography was scheduled to begin 16 Jan 1978 in Los Angeles. A 30 Apr 1979 article in Look revealed that Fonda fractured her ankle on set near the end of shooting, and production was delayed for a week. By the time the film completed production, the schedule totaled sixty shooting days.
       As Douglas stated in the 16 Mar 1979 NYT article, the production was unable to obtain permission to shoot at a nuclear power plant. However, the filmmakers were allowed to take photographs inside the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant in OR, enabling them to build an exact replica of the Trojan control room on a soundstage. The exterior of the plant was captured with matte shots, while various facilities of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power were used to fill in additional exteriors and interiors, such as boiler and turbine areas. The newsroom was shot at KTTV, Channel 11 television studios in Los Angeles, according to a Nov 1979 column in Season Ticket On TV.
       As reported in a 28 Feb 1979 DV article, the world premiere took place at the Pacific Cinerama Dome on 6 Mar 1979 as a benefit screening for Laurel Springs Educational Center, a non-profit organization involved in raising awareness about industrial causes of cancer. A second premiere, also a benefit for Laurel Springs, occurred in New York City on 15 Mar 1979 at Loew’s East Theater.
       The China Syndrome aroused a flood of protests from the nuclear energy industry and its supporters, who thought the film raised undue concern about a meltdown. As reported in the 11 Mar 1979 NYT article, General Electric, a leading supplier of nuclear power equipment, cancelled its sponsorship of a Barbara Walters television special featuring an interview with Jane Fonda. The trade organization, Atomic Industrial Forum, sent pro-nuclear packets to film critics. In a press release, excerpts of which were published in a 21 Mar 1979 DV article, The Edison Electric Institute, a trade organization for utility corporations, outlined inaccuracies in the film regarding technology and procedures.
       As experts debated the plausibility of the narrative, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), shut down five nuclear power plants for safety reasons on 13 Mar 1979, coincidently the same week the film was released. An editorial in the 23 Mar 1979 NYT pointed out that the regulators and inspectors were “vigilant and decisive” compared to their negligent counterparts in the film, while a 25 Mar 1979 LAT article noted that the real-life structural weaknesses in the “piping supports” cited by the NRC were ironically similar to the film’s fictional scenario.
       Almost two weeks after the film’s nationwide release, a nuclear reactor accident occurred at Three Mile Island nuclear facility near Harrisburg, PA. A 4 Apr 1979 NYT article reported that Columbia Pictures discontinued publicity and cancelled cast appearances on talks show as the seriousness of the incident became more apparent. Douglas stated that the filmmakers did not want to give the impression of “‘capitalizing in any sense on the tragedy.’”
       Meanwhile, the media provided the film with extra promotion, as noted in a 3 Apr 1979 DV article, by using film clips to compare the actual accident with the cinematic version. In a 6 Apr 1979 LAT article, a television reporter observed that, “The evening news is beginning to look like outtakes from the movie.” According to a 16 Apr 1979 Newsweek article, the studio was initially worried the title, The China Syndrome, would be too obscure for audiences. In the wake of Three Mile Island, the term became “common usage,” as described in the 29 Mar 1979 LAHExam, and was included in a press statement by a Three Mile Island spokesman who assured reporters that there was no threat of a “‘China Syndrome situation.’”
       As described by the 4 Apr 1979 NYT article, the film attracted a new wave of moviegoers, curious about what happened in PA. The picture was already successful with just over $6 million earned during the first week, according to a 23 Apr 1979 Box article. However, with the news of Three Mile Island, the box-office received an unexpected boost going into the third weekend of release when attendance often slips. After a month, the film had grossed just over $28 million, a new high mark for a Columbia non-holiday release, according to a 25 Apr 1979 Var article.
       Reviews in the NYT, HR and LAT were enthusiastic. Vincent Canby wrote in the 18 Mar 1979 NYT that the film was “healthily skeptical” compared to the succession of paranoid thrillers in recent years. He also praised the film for succeeding on multiple levels, as “a first-rate melodrama,” “a satire of big business,” and “an ageless morality play about greed and vanity.” The review in the 7 Mar 1979 Var offered a contrasting opinion in finding fault with the film’s “excessive nuclear terminology” and “overweening sense of its own self-importance.”
       At the Cannes Film Festival, Jack Lemmon won the award for Best Actor. The film received four Academy Award nominations: Actor in a Leading Role for Jack Lemmon; Actress in a Leading Role for Jane Fonda; Art Direction; and Writing (Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen). The film was also recognized at the Golden Globe Awards with five nominations: Best Motion Picture-Drama; Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture–Drama for Jane Fonda; Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture–Drama for Jack Lemmon; Best Director-Motion Picture; and Best Screenplay-Motion Picture. More Less

GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
23 Apr 1979.
---
Daily Variety
11 Jan 1978.
---
Daily Variety
8 Feb 1978.
---
Daily Variety
14 Feb 1978.
---
Daily Variety
28 Feb 1979.
---
Daily Variety
21 Mar 1979.
---
Daily Variety
3 Apr 1979
p. 1, 16.
Hollywood Reporter
8 Feb 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
14 Feb 1978.
---
Hollywood Reporter
7 Mar 1979
p. 3, 19.
LAHExam
29 Mar 1979
Section A, p. 1, 12.
Look
30 Apr 1979
p. 43.
Los Angeles Times
6 Mar 1978
Section E, p. 10.
Los Angeles Times
11 Mar 1979
Section M, p. 1, 34.
Los Angeles Times
25 Mar 1979
Section N, p. 3, 5.
Los Angeles Times
6 Apr 1979
Section E, p. 1, 21.
New York Times
11 Mar 1979
Section D, p. 1, 19.
New York Times
16 Mar 1979
Section C, p. 6, 16.
New York Times
18 Mar 1979
Section D, p. 19.
New York Times
23 Mar 1979
Section A, p. 28.
New York Times
4 Apr 1979
Section C, p. 18.
Newsweek
16 Apr 1979
p. 31.
Season Ticket On TV
Nov 1979
pp. 32-33.
Variety
7 Mar 1979
p. 20.
Variety
25 Apr 1979.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
Columbia Pictures Presents
A Michael Douglas/IPC Films Production
A James Bridges Film
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Unit prod mgr
1st asst dir
2d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
Exec prod
WRITERS
Wrt
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam op
Gaffer
Key grip
Still photog
Cam asst
Best boy grip
Best boy elec
2d cam asst
Cable man
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Art dept staff
Art dept staff
Art dept staff
Art dept staff
FILM EDITORS
SET DECORATORS
Prop master
Const coord
Leadman
Asst prop man
Const foreman
Paint foreman
3rd asst prop master
Labor foreman
COSTUMES
Cost des
Ladies' cost
Men`s cost
MUSIC
Mus ed
SOUND
Sd mixer
Boom man
Sd eff ed
Sd eff ed
Sd eff ed
Sd eff ed
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
VISUAL EFFECTS
Electronic eff
Spec eff asst
Miniature photog
Matte paintings
Spec photog eff
MAKEUP
Makeup artist
Ms. Fonda's makeup
Hairstylist
PRODUCTION MISC
Scr supv
Video seqs des
Transportation coord
Casting dir
Prod secy
Loc mgr
Prod auditor
Asst prod
Asst prod
Asst to Mr. Bridges
Prod asst
Asst casting
Electronic consultant
Electronic consultant
Craft service
Transportation capt
Tech adv, nuclear
Tech adv, news
Helicopter pilot
Helicopter pilot
Video consultant
Singing telegrams by
Computers
First aid
Account asst
Asst auditor
Asst to exec prod
Prod asst
Prod asst
Tech adv, nuclear, MHB Technical Associates
Tech adv, nuclear, MHB Technical Associates
Tech adv, nuclear, MHB Technical Associates
STAND INS
Stunt coord
Stunt coord
COLOR PERSONNEL
Color by
SOURCES
SONGS
"Somewhere in Between," music and lyrics by Stephen Bishop
"Country Girl," courtesy of Fantasy Records
"Federico," courtesy of Fantasy Records
+
SONGS
"Somewhere in Between," music and lyrics by Stephen Bishop
"Country Girl," courtesy of Fantasy Records
"Federico," courtesy of Fantasy Records
"Sugar's Delight," courtesy of Fantasy Records.
+
COMPOSER
DETAILS
Alternate Titles:
Power
Eyewitness
Release Date:
1979
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles and New York openings: 16 March 1979
Production Date:
began 16 January 1978 in Los Angeles, CA
Copyright Claimant:
Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.
Copyright Date:
3 May 1979
Copyright Number:
PA30789
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Lenses/Prints
Lenses and Panaflex equipment by Panavision®
Duration(in mins):
122
MPAA Rating:
PG
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
25456
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In Southern California, KXLA television reporter, Kimberly Wells, arrives at Ventana Nuclear Power Plant with cameraman Richard Adams and soundman Hector Salas to film a segment for an energy special. During their visit, an unexpected tremor is felt inside the plant. From the soundproof visitors’ gallery overlooking the control room, they observe the operators responding to a malfunction. Although the public relations officer, Bill Gibson, informs them that the incident is merely a “routine turbine trip,” the behavior in the control room indicates a more serious crisis. Richard surreptitiously films the event, even though photography is forbidden. Meanwhile, in the control room below, shift supervisor and nuclear engineer, Jack Godell, calmly directs the operators to stabilize the reactor, but pauses when he feels a milder, secondary shudder, which no one else notices. During the procedure, a stuck indicator causes a misreading of the water level, which is dangerously low and threatens to expose the nuclear core. When Jack realizes the equipment error, he executes a risky maneuver to adjust the water level, then waits with apprehension. As the water begins to rise, he breathes a sigh of relief. Later, plant superintendent Herman DeYoung reports to utility company chairman, Evan McCormack, that there was no damage, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will be conducting an investigation. With news that the company is losing half a million dollars per day, McCormack urges DeYoung to finalize the investigation at Ventana as soon as possible, so the plant can resume operation. At the KXLA news studio in Los Angeles, California, station director, Don Jacovich, decides that the footage of the control ... +


In Southern California, KXLA television reporter, Kimberly Wells, arrives at Ventana Nuclear Power Plant with cameraman Richard Adams and soundman Hector Salas to film a segment for an energy special. During their visit, an unexpected tremor is felt inside the plant. From the soundproof visitors’ gallery overlooking the control room, they observe the operators responding to a malfunction. Although the public relations officer, Bill Gibson, informs them that the incident is merely a “routine turbine trip,” the behavior in the control room indicates a more serious crisis. Richard surreptitiously films the event, even though photography is forbidden. Meanwhile, in the control room below, shift supervisor and nuclear engineer, Jack Godell, calmly directs the operators to stabilize the reactor, but pauses when he feels a milder, secondary shudder, which no one else notices. During the procedure, a stuck indicator causes a misreading of the water level, which is dangerously low and threatens to expose the nuclear core. When Jack realizes the equipment error, he executes a risky maneuver to adjust the water level, then waits with apprehension. As the water begins to rise, he breathes a sigh of relief. Later, plant superintendent Herman DeYoung reports to utility company chairman, Evan McCormack, that there was no damage, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will be conducting an investigation. With news that the company is losing half a million dollars per day, McCormack urges DeYoung to finalize the investigation at Ventana as soon as possible, so the plant can resume operation. At the KXLA news studio in Los Angeles, California, station director, Don Jacovich, decides that the footage of the control room cannot be broadcast because it represents unauthorized photography of a security installation. Richard is furious, believing that the public should be informed. After noticing Gibson at the station earlier, Kimberly suspects that the utility company may be pressuring Jacovich to suppress the story. The next day, news producer Mac Churchill informs Kimberly that Richard stole the Ventana footage from the film vault and warns her to retrieve it before Jacovich finds out. Looking for Richard, Kimberly stops by a local hangout near the Ventana plant. At the bar, Jack celebrates with his friend and colleague, Ted Spindler, after learning that the investigation is complete and the plant has been cleared to resume operation. Recognizing Kimberly from television, he invites her to join them. When Kimberly reminds Jack that she was in the visitors’ gallery on the day of accident, Jack corrects her and says the malfunction was not serious enough to be called an “accident.” She asks if the public was in danger, and Jack explains that nuclear plants have multiple backup systems, known as “defense-in-depth.” As a result, there was never a threat of radiation exposure. Later at the plant, however, Jack discovers radioactive leakage near one of the pumps. When he examines X-Rays of the pump’s welding seals, he is shocked to discover that the inspectors duplicated X-Rays, instead of examining each welded joint individually. DeYoung refuses to authorize new radiographs, which could cost $20 million, and reminds Jack that the plant must be back online that afternoon. Reluctantly, Jack follows orders, but becomes increasingly concerned about the safety of the plant. When he confronts D. B. Royce, the inspector responsible for the X-Rays, Jack threatens to expose the negligence to the NRC. Meanwhile, Richard takes the Ventana accident footage to a NRC safety hearing being conducted for a new nuclear plant at Point Conception, also owned by McCormack’s company. In a locked room, Kimberly arrives while Richard is showing the footage to physics professor, Dr. Lowell, and nuclear engineer, Greg Minor. Based on the visual evidence, the two experts believe the reactor was close to exposure, which could have caused an uncontrollable nuclear meltdown, known as “The China Syndrome.” In such a case, radioactive clouds would have been released into the atmosphere, leaving a large portion of the state uninhabitable, followed by outbreaks of cancerous diseases. That evening, Kimberly and Richard visit Jack at home and learn that the problem during the accident was not a near-exposure of the core since the reactor’s defense system responded correctly, but rather the falsification of the X-Rays. The unusual shudder Jack felt following the main shock of the turbine trip indicated a weak pump, which could trigger a China Syndrome if too much pressure is applied. Although he has devoted his life to the plant, Jack believes it is unsafe and agrees to hand over the false X-Rays for Richard and Kimberly to present at the NRC hearing. The next day, Hector discreetly collects the evidence from Jack, but he is seriously injured when his car is deliberately pushed off the road by a truck. Unable to reach Hector, Kimberly telephones Jack and asks him to testify in person. Jack leaves immediately, but soon discovers that he is being followed. To dodge his pursuers, Jack drives to Ventana, which has a guarded entrance. Inside the plant, Jack panics when he realizes that the reactor is almost at full power again, and warns Ted that another outage could destroy the weak pump. Ted believes Jack is intoxicated and tells him to go home, but Jack grabs a gun from a security guard and orders the operators to leave the control room. He summons Kimberly to the plant and allows her alone into the control room, announcing that he wants to make a statement on live television. Watching anxiously from the visitors’ gallery, McCormack objects, but DeYoung reminds him that Jack can flood the containment with radiation as long as he has the control room hijacked. While Richard makes arrangements for the broadcast on KXLA, McCormack and DeYoung instruct Ted to trigger a reactor “scram,” or shutdown, from outside the control room, which should distract Jack until a SWAT team can break in and restrain him. Richard informs Kimberly that the camera crew is ready, and she introduces Jack on live television. Jack begins by admitting a serious accident happened at the plant, but has difficulty relating the complexity of the problem and appears flustered. Suddenly, an alarm sounds and Jack screams, knowing that a reactor scram will jeopardize the pump. After DeYoung orders the television cables disconnected, the SWAT team forces open the control room doors and shoots Jack. Before he dies, Jack whispers to Kimberly that he can feel the shudder. Meanwhile, Ted watches a monitor to see the pump responsible for the radioactive leakage coming apart and realizes that his friend was right. The shudder grows stronger and the lights go out, until the reactor stabilizes automatically. Afterward, Gibson informs a crowd of reporters outside that the situation involved an emotionally disturbed, intoxicated employee, but the plant is now secure. At the camera truck, Mac tells Kimberly that Jack appeared unstable during his statement on air, but Kimberly is determined to prevent the posthumous systematic assassination of Jack’s character. On live television, she asks Ted if Jack was disturbed, and he declares that his friend was not a lunatic, but a hero. +

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Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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