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The China Syndrome: Special Edition

A thriller that wears its political sentiments on its sleeve, 1979's The China Syndrome was an inevitable result of the decade's public-policy concerns, particularly in light of nuclear proliferation at the height of the Cold War — which did nothing to reassure a lot of American citizens that nuclear power at home was a safe, reliable source of cheap energy. Jane Fonda stars as Los Angeles TV news reporter Kimberly Wells, an attractive redhead who's moved up to a major market, while at the same time relegated to "soft news," the breezy, somewhat nonsensical video-capsules that have started to sweep the local TV news industry. When not reporting on birthday parties for exotic animals at the local zoo, or a new company that promotes singing telegrams, Wells is assigned to a survey of energy utilities in California — short-handed, she manages to get former colleague Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) signed on as a freelance cameraman. But when the news team makes an innocuous visit to the Ventana Nuclear Power Plant, they stumble upon a story they don't know how to report — a series of events lead to a major incident, overseen by veteran shift supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon). Richard secretly captures the emergency scenario on film, only to have the station's producer lock it in a vault for fear of a lawsuit. Meanwhile, Godell launches his own private investigation, where he learns that some of the plant's safety records have been falsified. He's ready to blow the whistle, and before long he's persuaded by Kimberly and Richard to testify at an energy-policy hearing. But the nuclear facility's corporate masters aren't willing to face immediate bankruptcy without a fight, and there are few lengths they won't resort to in order to keep their plant on the power grid. The initial screenplay for The China Syndrome (by Mike Gray and T.S. Cook) found its way to the hands of producer/star Michael Douglas, who was still cruising on the success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). At one point, Douglas had persuaded Richard Dreyfuss to star, but Jane Fonda had become associated with a similar cautionary tale, also at Columbia. It was then director James Bridges who re-wrote the script, bringing Douglas and Fonda on the same soundstage. An even better coup was securing Jack Lemmon for the pivotal role of Jack Godell, a retired U.S. Navy nuclear sub officer who (like a lot of Navy vets) finds his way into privately held nuclear energy — Lemmon will always be remembered for his comic energy and deft verbal timing, but some would argue that he was never better than in his best dramatic roles. Here, he knowingly plays down his own persona in order to sketch out an older, single man who finds late in life that his greatest passion — the Ventana plant — is deeply flawed, and that his superiors no longer can be trusted. Jane Fonda (who knew Lemmon from his days when he co-starred with Henry Fonda in Mister Roberts), offers a solid performance as well, typical of her style during the era. And Michael Douglas, who was just emerging as a screen actor, gives the story its best flashes of dramatic urgency as a leftist documentary filmmaker who finds it impossible to ignore one of the great stories of his lifetime. Some might suspect that The China Syndrome was brought about to capitalize upon the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 — in fact, that event happened less than two weeks after the film's debut. Whether that helped or hurt the picture's prospects at the box-office is a matter of debate, some of which is included on this disc's supplements. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of The China Syndrome features a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a source-print that is pleasant and has held up well over the years, while audio is available in the original mono (DD 2.0) or on a new Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Supplements include two excellent retrospective documentaries, "The China Syndrome: A Fusion of Talent" (28 min.) and "The China Syndrome: Creating a Controversy" (28 min.), both with extensive comments from Fonda, Douglas, and other cast and crew members. Also on board are three deleted scenes and promos for other Columbia titles. Keep-case.
—JJB



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