There may never have been a case of life imitating art
that was as dead on as the release of "The China Syndrome" and the disaster at the Three Mile Island
"The China Syndrome" is a movie about Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), a female newscaster who is assigned rather lollipop news stories, such as a new singing telegram service in town or a tiger's birthday at the zoo. One day, when she is covering a simple story on how the local nuclear power plant works, she witnesses an accident from the visitor's room overlooking the control room. The camera man working for the assignment, Richard Adams (a then shaggy haired Michael Douglas) , secretly tapes the actions that occur in the control room during the event. Yet, the station won't let them air the footage and the story is treated as hardly a big deal when it is announced that at no point was there a threat to anybody’s life. Yet the head in the control room that day, Jack Godell (the late Jack Lemmon), begins to question what happened that day after he finds that the investigation into the events was hastily done due to the operating company of the plant losing half a million dollars each day the plant was closed. The film then goes on to show the two journalists and Jack trying to uncover a massive cover up to what exactly happened that day at the power plant and what the long term effects of that day would be.
When the film was released on March 19th, 1979 it was universally blasted by critics and experts alike. They believed that it was a crudely unrealistic portrayal of serious subject matter. And it wasn’t like they had nothing to base their opinions on, for there had been nuclear accidents prior to the spring 1979 date in which the film was released. A fire at a plutonium production reactor a hundred miles north of Liverpool, England was blamed for 39 cancer deaths in 1957. Three workers were killed in an Idaho reactor in 1961. A partial core meltdown occurred near Detroit in 1966. Radiation was released into a cavern (that later had to be sealed for good) in Switzerland in 1969 and in 1975 a fire at a reactor in Alabama resulted in dangerous lowering of cooling water levels, similar to what happened in the film.
While at the time of release there had been nuclear disasters before...there had been nothing on scale to what would happen in on Three Mile Island in the town of Middletown, Pennsylvania.
On March 28th, 1979, while "The China Syndrome" was still in theatres throughout the nation, a partial meltdown of the reactor core at the Three Mile Island Power Plant in Middletown occurred. It was the top story on every media outlet in the United States, Pennsylvania governor Dick Thornburgh went on television to address the fears of the state and to order the evacuation of tens of thousands of people and prompted a visit to the plant from then president Jimmy Carter. Total disaster was averted, yet 52% of the plant's core was melted down.
While with its three incredible performances, thrilling chase sequences, beautiful set pieces and an incredible musical score of silence, "The China Syndrome" was already a great film when it was released on March 19th in 1979, yet after March 28th, it had a new relevance. People could turn off the evening news, walk down the street to the movie theatre and see a film version of what they had been watching on television all week projected on the big screen. There was even a scene in film in which a nuclear expert is explaining the footage of the control room to the two main characters and he states that if a full meltdown occurred it would create cloud of radioactive fallout ”the size of Pennsylvania.”
While I'm not certain how much of a bump the film got after the accident, it did receive a good amount of attention. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, Fonda and Lemmon for acting as well as for screenwriting and art direction. The movie grossed 51.7 million dollars in its theatrical run, outgrossing other bigger films at the box office released that same year. Such as Alien, All That Jazz and Mad Max.
Yet "The China Syndrome" hasn't aged well over time. It's rarely mentioned as a "classic" film and on occasion when the film is brought up in conversation with somebody who claims to be a knowledgeable film buff they might have no idea what you’re talking about. Yet it's unfortunate that few recognize just how bizarre the release of "The China Syndrome" and the Three Mile Island disaster occurring less than two weeks away from each other is.
So to put it into perspective, the release of "The China Syndrome" would be comparable to the following possibilities:
*A movie about an ex-athlete being put on trial for murdering his ex-wife coming out less than two weeks before O.J Simpson was speeding down Interstate 5 in his Ford Bronco.
*A movie about the investigation of a doomed space craft coming out less than two weeks before the Challenger tragedy.
*A movie about a man attempting to kill the President only to impress an actress he was obsessed with coming out less than two weeks before John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan.
While the 1997 Oscar nominated film Wag The Dog seemed to compliment the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal that was occurring at the time of it’s release and the 2002 film Signs seemed to satirize the around the clock television coverage on every channel after the September 11th attacks that occurred less than a year earlier, both those films were in the production stages when the events they paralleled occurred.
“The China Syndrome” is one of, if not the most extreme example of life imitating art in our modern day and age.