The China Syndrome (1979, James Bridges)

Silly attempt at a Pakula-style paranoid thriller collapses under its own importance. Michael Douglas stars in the film–probably one of his first high profile roles–and produces it too. China Syndrome proves who’s responsible for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (if it wasn’t Kesey) and it isn’t Douglas. Syndrome doesn’t have a firm protagonist, it starts focused on Jane Fonda’s reporter (who exists in a situation not dissimilar to Anchorman, down to the parties) and then moves over to Jack Lemmon. Lemmon does a good job, but he’s hardly got anything to work with. He eats sandwiches a lot. At least Fonda has a pet turtle.

Since the film’s so heavy–and not even in a misdirected way, it’s all about the evils of big business–that it needs some humanity and doesn’t have any. Why bother saving Southern California from a nuclear disaster if it’s only filled with corporate heels and terrible Michael Douglas performances. I should have had some idea, of course, since I’ve seen Bridges’ most famous film, The Paper Chase. It too is full of shit, but almost nothing can describe how full of shit The China Syndrome truly gets. The end is laugh out loud funny.

However, Wilford Brimley shows up and does a great job. It’s his first movie, actually. Or one of them. Wow, poor guy. He was only fifty-one in Cocoon. Talk about getting type-cast early.

Oh, reading on IMDb. Richard Dreyfuss was originally going to be in it, then common sense intruded. The China Syndrome is really a case of too many writers being involved in a project and none of them being good. Bridges is a decent enough director, just can’t write compelling human conflicts.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by James Bridges; written by Mike Gray, T.S. Cook and Bridges; director of photography, James Crabe; edited by David Rawlins; production design, George Jenkins; produced by Michael Douglas; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jane Fonda (Kimberly Wells), Jack Lemmon (Jack Godell), Michael Douglas (Richard Adams), Scott Brady (Herman De Young), James Hampton (Bill Gibson), Peter Donat (Don Jacovich) and Wilford Brimley (Ted Spindler).


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