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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The China Syndrome is a suspense-filled, entertaining "issue" movie that has a strong point of view. An active nuclear plant shakes and shimmies; parts crumble and fall, all threatening a catastrophic accident in California. A constant sense of impending doom underscores the film, with shots designed to bring the viewer close to the "core" of the drama. Violent scenes include a car being run off the road and crashing (the bloody victim is seen later), and (spoiler alert) a major character is graphically shot in the back, dying instantly. Swearing is occasional and includes "goddamn, "s--t," "a--hole," "bastard," and "Jesus Christ." Released in 1979, only 12 days before the Three Mile Island disaster in Pennsylvania (the worst accident in the history of nuclear power in the U.S.), the movie warns against relying on nuclear energy as a replacement for fossil fuels. Characters smoke, and there's social drinking in a few sequences.
What's the story?
Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), a charming, popular television news reporter, and her crew are set to film a routine human-interest feature about the local nuclear power plant. While they're observing the smooth workings of the plant's operation, however, an accident happens. Kimberly's cameraman (Michael Douglas) secretly films the panic in the control room. The emergency is averted, but attempts to prevent the news team from releasing the footage, and the position taken by Kimberly's superiors and the industrial bosses, confirm her suspicions that there's more to the story. She seeks out plant supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon), a man committed to his job and to the positive uses of nuclear power. Jack, increasingly concerned about what he's felt and heard in the control room, aligns himself with the news team in an attempt to uncover and expose the true condition of the plant before tragedy occurs. However, opposing forces in THE CHINA SYNDROME are lethal, determined to conceal any hint of danger in the workings of the industry, especially since hearings are in process to approve a second plant.
Is it any good?
This award-winning film works on many levels. Outstanding performances; an intense, suspenseful story and script; and later events (both the Chernobyl disaster in Russia and the accident at Three Mile Island in the U.S.) confirmed the premise of this film and give this movie both power and resonance. Most of all, it's thrilling entertainment. When it was first released, some thought it over-earnest, too political, and foolishly fearful of nuclear power. The movie may be even more impressive today, given our increasing preoccupation with energy-dependence. Highly recommended for teens and their families, it's both exciting and thought-provoking.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can discuss the role of the news reporters in this film. Do you agree with the premise that the news media has an obligation to the public? What happens when the reporting of news becomes the news, as it does here?
The filmmakers hoped to deliver an entertaining movie with a message. Were they successful? Why?
This movie was released in 1979. Find out what has happened since that time that either affirms or contradicts the explicit warning in this story.
- In theaters: March 16, 1979
- On DVD or streaming: May 29, 1999
- Cast: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas
- Director: James Bridges
- Studio: IPC Films
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Science and Nature
- Character Strengths: Courage
- Run time: 122 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- Awards/Honors: Golden Globe
- Last updated: March 13, 2020
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