Another fine example of Post Watergate film making (grey suited grey haired men manipulating events and people, hiding the truth to make a buck - check) The China Syndrome is a gripping drama concerning an unsafe nuclear plant in California and the news crew who try to break the story.
Jane Fonda may well be the leading lady, and delivers a central performance as the aspiring newscaster that holds the film together very well, but this film really belongs to Jack Lemmon who delivers another great straight performance in what was shaping up to be the second stage of his career. Lemmon's screen persona - be ti comedy or drama - was always the put upon or overlooked everyman with an honest well meaning core. He had a rare and brilliant ability to engage audience empathy and The China Syndrome was no exception.
In support is a likeable and somewhat muted Michael Douglas (who also produced the film) as Fonda's crusading cameraman, and the excellent American character actor Wilford Brimley as one of the plant workers, a veteran company man who doesn't realise until it's too late how right Lemmon's concerns are. Also, who knew George Costanza's boss at the Yankees, Mr Wilhelm, was secretly such a ruthless bad ass?!
The film has a chilling tense air throughout, helped by the bold and remarkable decision to not score it. But it's in the last 20-30 minutes that The China Syndrome really starts to bite with a palm sweatingly griping and shocking final reel.
12 days after the film's release a nuclear meltdown similar to the one depicted here occurred for real on America's Three Mile Island. Once again, 70s US cinema had asked pertinent questions about 'the greatest country in the modern world' and an answer came swiftly and with a huge impact that made audiences sit up and take note. It's a shame Hollywood can't offer anything as challenging and as occupied with the facts and the murky grey areas of modern life now.