The China Syndrome focuses on television newscaster Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), who is continually relegated to trivial news stories and is blatantly made aware that the only expectation of her is to look good on camera. With her cameraman, Richard Adams (Michael Douglas), Kimberly is sent to do a small reporting job at nuclear plant. It is during her interview that an incident occurs that seems to have catastrophic potential until the situation is only barely bypassed through the quick maneuvering of Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon). Despite being told the incident isn’t anything to concern herself with, Kimberly begins to conduct investigative work on the nuclear plant, unveiling a series of revelations that many would rather be kept as a secret, which puts her reputation and potentially the lives of others at risk.
Oftentimes, thrillers that attempt to tackle controversial issues, such as nuclear power in this film, place a worse-case-scenario as the focal point of their plot. The China Syndrome is no exception to this, but rather than coming off as a cheap exploit, the film is functional because it never strives to be a political film. The film, instead, is simply a thriller, to which the audience is offered a scenario that instigates an intricate plot line. More importantly, this is a film that relies heavily on its actors to deliver the contents of its script. Without the precise delivery of its actors, most notably Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon, this film wouldn’t have worked for audiences. The actors had to sell this film to the moviegoers, which was ultimately one of the strengths that came from the final product of this film. Due to the believability of its actors, the worse-case-scenario in this film has an air of authenticity to it.
Ironically, the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear accident on March 28, 1979, occurred twelve days after the theatrical release of this film, which validated to many the risk of nuclear power that the plot of The China Syndrome sought to relay to moviegoers. This undoubtedly assisted with the film’s success by providing a real-life relevancy that could be juxtaposed with the film. On its own, the film is a successful slow-accumulation of suspense that is highly effective in a film that is primarily dialogue-driven. The film desperately needed characters who sharply contrasted with each other to further fuel the film’s tension, and Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon were only too happy to oblige. Collectively, they diminish any of the film’s flaws, such as the minimal explanation for the nuclear plant’s history and a lack of a dense portrayal of those who are guilty of deliberate negligence. Instead, the film places a focus on its central characters and by establishing a connection between them and the average moviegoer, the audience ignores such flaws and instead finds themselves intrigued to know how the situation will be resolved.
Jack Lemmon’s performance as Jack Godell in The China Syndrome is not a complicated character, yet Lemmon is tremendously effective in pushing the character to be complex and multifaceted. In fact, the role falls within a typical character-type that is common in corporate thrillers: A well established insider within an corporation begins to ask questions and realizes things are not as perfect as he assumes, which prompts him to rectify the injustice that has been perpetuated upon the general public. Often such roles exhibit issues of right-versus-wrong and are expressive performances that blatantly convey to the audience the internalized conflict of the character. In that regard, that is precisely how Lemmon’s Jack Godell is scripted. Yet what makes the performance unique is that Jack Lemmon flipped the character from being expressive to being completely internalized.
Incidentally, Lemmon is first introduced to the film at the onset of the nuclear plant situation, giving audiences their first glimpse of a capable individual who has to willfully cut corners in order to avoid a nuclear meltdown. The true excellence of the performance is firstly offering a highly expressive introduction to the character and reversing it completely once the situation is neutralized. Lemmon’s performance, after his introductory scene, shifts to one of subtlety, especially in the context of body language. The depth of Lemmon’s performance can be best judged by his eyes, which are an indicator of truth throughout this film, even when his character is attempting to justify any the nuclear plant’s safety procedures. Lemmon’s eyes internally convey fear and the desire to confirm his claims as truth, yet when his character’s own claims are debunked, those same eyes elicit moments of utter grief. In the context of Lemmon’s work in this film, it is his eyes that does the majority of his acting. Lemmon is also careful in his portrayal of his character by providing a slow acceleration of demeanor throughout the film. There is a level of realism with the character by portraying him in such a manner, to which his actions and behavior seem justified and understandable to the audience. His performance always remains at a steady pace, to which the performance heightens each time his character becomes more consequential towards the situation.