The Quarantine Stream: Before 'Chernobyl', There Was 'The China Syndrome'

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they've been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)The MovieThe China SyndromeWhere You Can Stream It: The Criterion ChannelThe Pitch: A hungry journalist (Jane Fonda) and her freelance cameraman (Michael Douglas) are doing a story about nuclear energy for her California news station. During a tour of the nuclear power plant, they covertly film an accident in progress, and the thrust of the film revolves around the journalists realizing exactly how close the nuclear reactor came to melting down, clashing against a cover-up, and confronting the plant's shift supervisor (Jack Lemmon) about what really happened that day.Why It's Essential Viewing: The film serves as a warning about the dangers of nuclear power, showcasing how a small mistake can quickly cascade into a scenario that nearly gets out of control. Released only 12 days (!) before the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and six years before the much worse disaster at Chernobyl, The China Syndrome was staggeringly relevant from the moment it was released in 1979.

The parallels to the events depicted in this movie and the real Three Mile Island accident that happened just a few days later are astonishing. In addition to some of the technical aspects of the accidents being extremely similar, at one point in this movie a character even mentions that if a disaster occurs, it could render a state the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable. (The Three Mile Island nuclear plant is located in Pennsylvania.) The excellent HBO series Chernobyl had the benefit of hindsight and years of eyewitness accounts and government records and testimonies to dig through to craft its story; in contrast, The China Syndrome was completely predictive and feels almost preternaturally prescient because of it.

Aside from its real-world connections, though, the movie is also just a hell of an entertaining thriller. Style icon Michael Douglas produced the movie and is content to sit back in a supporting role and let Fonda and Lemmon take the spotlight. Lemmon has the showiest part as the man in charge of the plant during the accident; he gets the meatiest dialogue and the most theatrical moments as the film races toward its climax. But Fonda is great, too, playing a character who became the template (purposefully or not) for Anchorman's Veronica Corningstone: a female journalist who wants to do more than just fluff pieces, but who is constantly put in a box by her sexist male co-workers at the station. I couldn't find any evidence that Anchorman director Adam McKay ever cited The China Syndrome as an inspiration, but Fonda's character isn't the only similarity to the 2004 comedy: two of the sets are strikingly close to sets that appeared in Anchorman.

Co-writer and director James Bridges (Urban Cowboy, The Paper Chase) delivered a tense, gripping movie that was of its time but which holds up incredibly well; despite this being a fictional story, we now know enough about the devastating effects of nuclear fallout that you may find your palms getting a bit sweaty as the movie's accident unfurls and characters discover just how bad it got along the way. The China Syndrome will be disappearing from the Criterion Channel this Thursday, so do yourselves a favor and check it out there while you still can.