Plot: Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) has taken the local news scene by storm, as audiences instantly connected with her and as such, the ratings for her segments have been quite impressive. While she is thrilled to have found some success, she wants to turn that audience acceptance into a promotion of sorts and move from fluff pieces to more important news stories. Her boss puts her off, telling her to stay with the cute reports that the viewers know and love instead. But she finds herself on the brink of a real story by sheer luck when a visit to a local nuclear power planet to record puff interviews takes an unexpected turn. She and her cameraman Richard (Michael Douglas) witness some kind of tense situation after an accident and while the plant officials claim it was no real issue, the two know better. But when the story is buried by her station, will Kimberly give up or prove her journalistic skills first hand and uncover the truth behind the incident at the power plant?
Entertainment Value: This is a tense, well performed drama that shines a little light on both the dangers of nuclear power and how news is brought to the public, or not brought to the public in some cases. As most topical movies, this feels dated in some ways and comes off as melodramatic at times, but the writing is even handed and the cast more than compensates. The pace is deliberate, but provides effective tension and character development, so time never feels wasted. The narrative is well crafted and the fears examined in the movie proved to be valid, when Three Mile Island had a meltdown around the time The China Syndrome was released. The production values are good, but the slow pace and grounded approach don’t provide much in terms of big screen thrills, so the movie feels like a television production value overall. That is balanced out by the remarkable cast of course, so I don’t mean that as an insult, just that the movie’s scope is small and focused. In the end, I found The China Syndrome to be well crafted and much less preachy than most topical films of this kind, with the skilled cast as the main draw to revisit this one.
Although the movie is an ensemble piece, Jane Fonda is at the center of the narrative and has likely the most screen time here. She is able to handle the dramatic elements with no problem, while also having the charm and sense of humor the role requires. After all, being likable and charismatic are key traits of Kimberly, so Fonda nails all the aspects of the character. While Fonda has the lead, more or less, Jack Lemmon steals the show and turns in the best performance of The China Syndrome. He is fantastic in this film and to me, this is his best dramatic role and he really goes for broke, showing considerable depth and presence. This isn’t a surprise, as he has numerous serious roles in which he shines, but I hold this as his finest hour. Michael Douglas is also good here, though a little over the top at times. The cast also includes Wilford Brimley, James Karen, Scott Brady, and James Hampton.
The Disc: Indicator Series delivers a rock solid visual presentation, with good detail and accurate color scope. This movie doesn’t have a lot of visual flair, so the transfer isn’t as flashy as some, but the film has never looked better. The extras include an extensive audio interview with Lemmon, several featurettes about the film’s production and social outlook, deleted scenes, and the movie’s theatrical trailer.