This is the last week of my spotlight on movies about journalism. For my last featured film,I have chosen the provocative The China Syndrome from 1979. It’s as much about journalism as the nuclear power industry. The film was quite controversial when initially released. Over 30 years later,it’s still a film worth studying.
In the film,
KTLA Television human interest reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) aspires to do hard-hitting news stories, whereas station brass wants to keep her to her current position. They’re more concerned with her looks than her skills as an investigative reporter. While doing a human interest story at the Ventana nuclear power plant, she stumbles onto a story that could give her the opportunity to do some hard news. While on-site, she witnesses what she thinks is a near nuclear disaster. Her freelance cameraman and friend, Richard Adams (Michael Douglas), secretly films the event as it unfolds in Ventana’s control room. However, the network kills the story due in part to liability issues (it’s a felony to film inside a nuclear power plant). Kimberly initially toes the company line,wanting to protect her career. However,Richard wants to use the film to really find out what happened. Uncovering the truth hits an early snag when the regulatory commission reports that the plant faced no major issue during the incident. Both Kimberly and Richard believe the quick and favorable report was due to the fact that development of another nuclear power plant is currently going through the public consultation process. Back at the plant, Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) , the supervisor on duty in the control room during the incident, believes that something indeed is wrong with the plant due to the event, when he felt a tremor on-site. His beliefs are strengthened due to some radioactive leak in the plant from an unknown source and the discovery of some falsified documents, the latter of which he knows may be a threat to his life by the perpetrators. Jack, with Kimberly and Richard’s help, does whatever he can to get his story into the public consciousness to avert what he thinks is a potential nuclear meltdown at the plant. But the power company is determined to keep Jack quiet and to protect their billion dollar investment, namely Ventana.–IMDB
There are so many issues in the journalism industry brought up by this film worthy of discussion. First,there’s the fact that the news people are more interested in doing puff pieces than hard-hitting news. Human interest stories are fine. But the main function of journalism is to inform the public on the issues. Kimberly Wells wants to do real news. But the network is more interested in how she looks. Go figure. I don’t think you have to be a journalist to know that a potential nuclear meltdown should be the lead story on a newscast. That brings up another issue raised in the film: what do you do when you obtain something illegally,in this case film of something that could have a detrimental effect on the public? Do you do the responsible thing or risk getting sued because the ends justify the means? Finally,The China Syndrome brings to the forefront the question of how to deal with whistle blowers.How do you keep them safe when you know they’re risking everything to tell their story? Jack Lemmon’s character loves the plant. But it kills him to see a place he’s worked for and loved be run so irresponsibly.
The China Syndrome is a great film to watch and have a discussion about journalism ethics about afterwards. It’s a great journalism movie and superbly crafted thriller. The cast is superb. Jane Fonda gives a solid performance as a journalist who wants to do real news and breakthrough the gender barriers in her profession. Michael Douglas is great as the rebellious cameraman. And what more can be said about Jack Lemmon? He’s one of the greatest actors to ever walk the Earth. Here he turns in another brilliant performance as the whistle-blower at the plant. Director James Bridges also deserves credit,along with screen writers Mike Grey and T.S. Cook. One final note: there’s a great supporting performance by Wilford Brimley as Ted Spindler,Godell’s friend/colleague at the plant. He’s a joy to watch.
That’s it for journalism at the movies! Join me in June for my spotlight on great film car chases.