MAGNET contributing writer Jud Cost is sharing some of the wealth of classic films he’s been lucky enough to see over the past 40 years. Trolling the backwaters of cinema, he has worked up a list of more than 100 titles—from the ’20s through the ’80s—that you may have missed. A new selection, all currently available on DVD, appears every week.
The China Syndrome (1979, 122 minutes)
The China Syndrome, an apocryphal meltdown of a nuclear reactor that endangers the earth’s core, was released in March of 1979, just two weeks before reality imitated art at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in southern Pennsylvania.
The colored bars on a TV monitor disappear, revealing Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), primping for a remote camera shoot on KXLA-TV. “The red hair was a good idea,” remarks one of the production staff, back in the studio. “We’ve talked about cutting it. She’ll do what we tell her,” says another as Wells’ image shrinks to one of many on an editing console. “Mac, we’ll need at least five minutes,” she tells her studio producer. “Not a chance, Kimberly. We’re coming to you in 40 seconds,” answers Mac (James Karen). “You can’t do that. We don’t have a cameraman,” she protests. “Where the hell is George?” he asks. “He’s taking a leak,” she says.
With the camera up-and-running, Wells’ face lights the screen as she begins her two-minute piece; “What did you do the last time somebody had a birthday? Send a card or maybe flowers? Kinda boring.” A bellboy bursts in singing, “Give an H, give an A, give a PPY,” a retooled “Happy Birthday” sung to the tune of the William Tell Overture. “Kimberly, change of schedule. You’re going to Ventana,” Mac announces afterward. “Great!” she beams, jumping at the chance to do something that isn’t a puff piece.
Ventana’s PR spokesman, Bill Gibson, ushers Wells and her crew—cameraman Richard Adams and soundman Hector Salas—into the nuclear power station’s control room. As Wells is about to pour herself a drink, the five-gallon bottle in the water cooler begins to bubble uncontrollably after a ground-rattling shudder. “That felt like an earthquake,” whispers Adams (Michael Douglas), about to trip the “record” lever on his camera, after being warned that photography in the control room is in violation of national security.
As Wells and her crew watch wide-eyed from the observation platform, shift supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) emerges from his office into a hailstorm of flashing lights and honking alarm sirens. “Somebody turn off that goddamn alarm!” shouts an agitated Godell, eying the critical water-coolant gauge he suspects might be giving a false “safe” reading.
“Jesus Christ!” he barks as he removes the red arrow by tapping the surrounding glass with his finger to reveal a coolant level that’s plummeting. Senior staff member Ted Spindler (Wilford Brimley) blurts out “Jack!” as Godell relieves the steam pressure, a risky maneuver. Godell immediately gets on the hot-line to the plant director. “We have a serious condition. Get everyone into safety areas. We may uncover the core!” And the harrowing scenario is quietly being documented by an alert KXLA news crew.