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You were asking me a “public function” question.


The China Syndrome


One of the prize exhibits in the movie museum of nuclear panic. So real, a real event with grim parallels occurred “coincidentally” twelve days after its release. At least, that’s what we’re told to inhale. Such is the diabolical nature of predictive programming and the elusive web of fact and fiction, we can have a recent Ohio toxic spill debated as a psyop, owing to its “eerie” similarity to events in Netflix’s recent White Noise. The arena of cinematic sleights fosters an array of feasible effects, depending on who is pulling the strings and to what purpose. A case like The China Syndrome slots in as part of a then-35-year old atomic (power) edifice, and the very nature of a fiction bearing an uncanny resemblance to an “actual” disaster is earmarked to underline the inherent plausibility of the real-world event; “What are the chances of that?”

For my part, even given the nuke lie*, I have to credit The China Syndrome with being every bit as compelling as it was on first blush. I was always quite susceptible to the fanned flames of foreseen fallout, be it Chernobyl or Fukushima. Such fears, of imminent apocalypse, are a massive boon in harvestable loosh, of course, quite besides being yet another addition to the pile of deceptions about the nature of the world, cementing ever more securely a false paradigm in the minds of the largely unsuspecting populace. James Bridges’ film taps acutely into Hollywood’s prevailing paranoia trend of that decade, of authorities inherently awry, and thus carries the extra cachet of appearing anti-establishment (which isn’t to suggest many of those involved in the production didn’t genuinely believe they were bucking the system, oblivious that, in such instances, it was in the interests of those controlling the system to buck specific parts of it).

Bridges had earlier penned seminal mad-computer picture Colossus: The Forbin Project, which also broached the threat of nuclear armageddon; Mike Gray had written The China Syndrome screenplay, and producer Michael Douglas – who earlier reaped dividends in that capacity with also ostensibly anti-establishment One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – brought in TS Cook (responsible for TV drama The Paper Chase, which Bridges worked on, and also Project UFO, based on Project Blue Book). Bridges also rewrote the screenplay. Douglas contributed a solid supporting turn in medical conspiracy/paranoia thriller Coma the year before, so he was proving pretty shrewd at picking winners at this point, or being directed towards them, at any rate; he wasn’t planning on appearing in The China Syndrome, it seems, and only took the role of cameraman Richard Adams when Richard Dreyfus pulled out (I wonder if this is why, in the first few scenes, he’s affecting a nasal voice and slight air of camp, but later seems more like standard-issue Douglas; perhaps he had second thought. Or perhaps his character was doing a “bit”).

As for popular Hollywood hermaphrodite Hanoi Jane, she can be found, in Time Out’s Geoff Andrews’ words, “setting her jaw” as Kimberly Wells – a very TV anchor name – rises to the challenge of delivering with the real news she’s been after all this time. Real news. You know, instead of popular puff pieces on singing telegrams and house calls by vets (“Or is it aquarium calls?”) Fonda, pre-workouts, gets to a new peg for her activist cred and also pre-empts the workplace sexism of 9 to 5. Kimberly’s a workaholic, hence her lowest-maintenance of all pets, a tortoise, but she’s obliged to suffer her boss’ demeaning advice “not to worry your pretty little head about” serious matters before being told she “didn’t get this job because of your investigative abilities”. And, for extra confidence, “I like your hair like that”.

The ingredients are all there, then (curiously, it’s firebrand Adams who really leads the charge, surreptitiously filming the initial incident before stealing the reel from the station and showing it to experts, while Kimberly does her best but has to admit, tearfully, she isn’t very objective when summarising what goes down at the plant). There’s even Jack Lemmon, given a meaty part and responding to it with due aplomb. He’s firmly into his “serious” thespian phase here, one that far too frequently landed on the side of over-strained whinger/fusspot/bore; I am not a fan of his also-acclaimed turn in Missing a few years later, but Jack Godell is more about stress than dithering. Or, as David Thomson put it, than being “fussy, nagging and anal”.  There’s also the supremely dependable Wilford Brimley, the company man (Ted Spindler) fearful of getting the chop who goes with the programme – really, a much more affecting dilemma than Jack’s – until he recants and calls gun-wielding (and dead) Godell a hero at the end.

Ironically, Ted is most unconcerned by the gauge that initially gets Godell’s goat; if his laidback approach had prevailed among all those present, there’d have been no near-exposure of the core and no incident to get worked up about (well, maybe there would, down the line, thanks to the construction company cutting corners: they’re the real villains. Like everything here, there are layers of reading. You can argue nuclear is safe – which it is, if it doesn’t exist, per se – because the only danger arising is due to the vast global corporation, so vast it has its own sinister death-dealing security team, believing it answers to no one). Of course, Ted then compounds matters through failing to have Jack’s back. To access the control a room, a SCRAM (Safety Control Rod Axe Man) is triggered that results in a near replication of exactly Godell’s primary fear.

Wiki cites the plot being based on a 1970 event at the Dresden Generating Station outside Chicago (retired the year before the movie’s release), but I’ve also seen incidents at Browns Ferry, Alabama and Rocketdyne referenced. The sinister conspiracy and coverup elements, meanwhile (Richard’s colleague Hector is driven off the road and nearly killed, his evidence snatched, Jack is chased), allude to Karen Silkwood’s death in 1974 (Silkwood would add to Hollywood’s anti-nuclear bandwagon, in tandem with WarGames offering its own Forbin Project update). In The China Syndrome, a stuck gauge leads to the problem, whereas Three Mile Island derived from a stuck-open valve (and then partial meltdown). The China Syndrome had disaster averted – for now – but keenly warns that “It could render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable”; Three Mile Island occurred in Pennsylvania. 

The China Syndrome, with its emphasis on realism – The Parallax View’s Michael Small delivered a score that was rejected in favour of no score at all – is essentially a public service broadcast on how dangerous it can be to dice with atomic energy. However, it stacks up the coincidences as much as the film/event themselves; the crew are coincidentally filming WHILE an incident takes place. This being a “rare opportunity to see inside a nuclear plant” – so quite unlike Doctor Who or Blake’s 7 in the UK, every other week in the ’70s, it seemed. 

There are truths here that need to come out, and the TV station colludes with the plant to keep them from the public; “This is all a goddamn coverup” exclaims an indignant Adams, to the rebuke “It is not a conspiracy. It is not a coverup” and that it would be “totally irresponsible to go on air without checking the facts”. While the construction company is ultimately to blame, the plant compounds matters because they are similarly inclined. As Adams predicts, the investigation will be “a hell of a fast one with another plant trying to get a licence”, and when Godell objects that the plant needs to be offline while the pump is replaced and checks are completed, he is rebuffed, told it would take weeks and they want it online that afternoon because they are losing half a million a day. Godell, the Cassandra (crossing), feels compelled to take drastic action. And yes, the arising scenario is post-Network hyperbolic, but it is nevertheless gripping, and that’s what really counts (on the media-satire front, The China Syndrome is less than scintillating; it’s all very sombre and restrained, but it does cut to an ad for microwave ovens at the end, something else that isn’t very good for you).

What’s crucial here is the air of verisimilitude; you’re aware you’re watching a Hollywood movie, one that takes dramatic licence, but the kernel rings true, such that when real life repeats its scenario, on a magnified scale, the cash registers can be guaranteed to ring out (the picture was number one for three weeks, and made varyingly, per Box Office Mojo vs Numbers respectively, $51.7m, 12th for the year vs $35.7m, 22nd). 

Despite this toeing the line, one can find suggestions of doubt in the mix if one wishes to infer them that way. Kimberley’s puff piece introduces the “almost magical transformation of matter into energy…” that is nuclear power (it’s magic, smoke and mirrors) while Adams bites down on “a pellet of simulated uranium” (the plant isn’t dealing in any nuclear reality). The China Syndrome idea itself has been cited as implausible, that a meltdown could go through the Earth’s core and emerge the other side in China… – of course it’s implausible! The Earth isn’t a globe! One commentator observed that the exhibit seen at the beginning of the plant tour showed a pressurised-water reactor, but the actions depicted a boiling-water reactor. Goddell claims “We’ve got a quality control that’s only equalled by NASA”. You know, the guys who fake everything. No wonder their quality control is so high (and why their “disasters” also put the kibosh on programmes). 

Which is the leading question. You can buy or not that nuclear energy is fake, but why would TPTB manufacture the tide of sentiment against it (not that CND and Greenpeace etc needed any encouragement, but there needed to be a disinclination to build the things, and post-Three Mile Island, there most definitely was)? One consideration might be that, the bigger the lie, the more people who have access to the lie, the more likely it is to be exposed, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped the aforementioned NASA, and most people simply don’t have to get up close with radioactive cores and find out.

Disinfo agent Miles Mathis, who offers frequent truths amid the misdirections, suggested nuclear plants are actually producing energy through caesium (via electron production), which, it seems, is correct. His, or his overlords’, take is that “It now looks to me like they hoaxed the big events like Three Mile Island, to scare people off this kind of power. After early decisions to divert some of the new energy to the public, those decisions were apparently reversed… I suggest either there was too little energy produced to be used by the public and in secret, or the secret uses later ballooned, making energy sharing with the public unfeasible”. Which, yeah, sure. It’s a theory.

Curiously, Douglas’ research for his role saw him go on news rounds with TV camera operators. One of whom, Bob Brown, would die in the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana. Which is, of course, another feast of conspiratorial rumour and suggestion (CIA being the biggest name arising, with concomitant MKUltra allusions). Jonestown was, it seems, another psyop, however. Both these events come up in the Seth Material, with Jane and Bill becoming most vexed about the events and their repercussions. Seth, in response, failed to even hint that either were anything other than what they seemed to be (that distraction from the message clearly wasn’t his 5D bag, baby).

Andrew suggested the picture was “All a bit too earnest, despite the seriousness of the subject… but it’s tightly scripted and directed, and genuinely tense in places”. I’d argue it gets the tone about right; as a piece of programming, The China Syndrome’s tremendously effective, and since it tapped into the cultural vein the way it did, in respectable but thrilling fashion, it duly earned kudos. There were Oscar nominations x4 (Lemon, Fonda, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Art Direction). It was BAFTA nominated for Best Film (Lemon and Fonda won). The China Syndrome remains a vital component of movies’ massaging of the nuke lie, one that will duly be exhumed when it comes time to assess the trail of mass manipulation.

*Addendum 24/06/23: So, I’ve been chasing the wrong conspiracy with this one, it seems. It’s almost inevitable that, when you think you’ve grasped the nettle of some subjects, you instead get stung to blue blazes. There’s long-standing theorising concerning the legitimacy of the nuke threat, and of nuclear technology generally, and as one who’d been dyed-in-the-wool terrified of all things atomic as a nipper, it took me a while to warm to it (probably in the last three or four years). Warm to it I did, though, and it seemed Q & A answers were confirming the counterfeit nature of the subject (this, however, as tends to be the case, was based on misconception of the parameters of the response).  

This is not to suggest Three Mile Island was other than a psyop (it was), or that The China Syndrome didn’t play its PP part in that (it did). And while Mathis’ citing of caesium is legit, it seems, one lesson is: if Miles is in favour of a conspiracy theory, treat it with extreme caution. Even if a portion of the basic idea is legit, something is surely rotten somewhere in there.

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