The China Syndrome

Jack Lemmon in The China Syndrome

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

10 October

Nuclear plant Windscale catches fire, 1957

On this day in 1957, the nuclear plant at Windscale in North West England caught fire.

Hastily conceived and built after the Second World War, Windscale was originally part of Britain’s attempt to build a nuclear bomb. At this point there was very little nuclear expertise in the world and Britain was definitely not in the vanguard. So the plant was poorly designed and badly maintained, leading to a fire in Pile 1 which burned away for 48 hours before anyone realised what was going on.

No one knew what to do. Do you call firefighters, with traditional water and hoses? In the event, and quite by chance, there was 25 tonnes of liquid carbon dioxide on hand, which the reactor manager and his co-workers attempted to use to smother the fire. But the fire was so hot that it stripped the oxygen from the CO2, and fed the fire, making things worse. By 11 October 11 tons of uranium were ablaze and the reactor was in danger of disintegrating. It was at this point that water was used. It made no difference.

Finally, it was decided to seal off all the cooling and ventilation inlets to the reactor, in an attempt to deprive the fire of oxygen. Slowly, it began to work. After another day, during which water was pumped in constantly, the fire was out. The reactor has remained sealed ever since.

The fire caused quantities of radioactive substances – notably iodine-131, caesium-137 and xenon-133 – to be released across Europe. Compared to the 1986 Chernobyl accident, Windscale was small fry – 740 terabecquerels (TBq) of iodine-131 were released at Windscale compared to 1,760,000 TBq at Chernobyl. There have been 99 accidents at nuclear plants since 1952 (“accidents” being defined as an event resulting in either loss of life or serious damage to property). Fifty six of them have been in the USA.

The China Syndrome (1979, dir: James Bridges)

You can’t buy publicity like this – 13 days after this film about an accident at a nuclear power plant hit the screens, one of the two nuclear reactors at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania USA, had a partial meltdown, causing the worst accident in US commercial nuclear power plant history.

A sophisticated disaster movie in an era that had grown tired of the more simplistic ones (see Airport, Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure and Earthquake), The China Syndrome goes long on drama and performance and short on shock and awe (though the title does refer to the possibility of an escape of nuclear material that could burn its way through the earth, all the way to China).

Jack Lemmon is the film’s star, playing a foreman at a nuclear plant who has suspicions that an earthquake has done dangerous things to a reactor, though no one will believe him. Also on the trail are Jane Fonda as an eye-candy journalist burning to cover the hard stories reserved for men and Michael Douglas as a cameraman with a countercultural bent and an inherent distrust of big business, their powerful lobbies and the PRs employed to bend the news.

The film more or less marks the end of Fonda’s “Hanoi Jane” anti-establishment period, re-asserted Lemmon’s claim to be just as good in straight drama as light comedy and confirmed Douglas’s position as a movie star as well as a TV face from The Streets of San Francisco. But it’s Lemmon’s film – his shift from complacent salaryman to concerned expert to panicky onlooker being what this film is all about.

Why Watch?

  • A finger on the zeitgeist of the late 1970s
  • A great example of a 1970s paranoid thriller
  • George Jenkins’s chilling set design
  • Jack Lemmon as an everyman waking up to how frightening the world has become

The China Syndrome – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

A Perfect Murder

Gwyneth Paltrow and Viggo Mortensen in A Perfect Murder





Andrew Davis has made something of a specialty of directing thrillers. He made Steven Seagal’s best film, Under Siege, and Chuck Norris’s best film too, Code of Silence. He’s also responsible for the breathless chase of The Fugitive and for this remake of Frederick Knott’s play Dial M for Murder, on which Hitchcock based his 1954 movie. The “perfect murder”, beloved of films of a certain vintage, now seems almost as dated a concept as that of the criminal mind. However Davis and adapter Patrick Smith Kelly squeeze a little more mileage out of it by playing up what you might call the Gordon Gecko aspects – cash and deceit. Which brings us to the cast – Michael Douglas plays the powerful husband of an heiress wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) who discovers she’s been having an affair with a fairly broke artist (Viggo Mortensen). What then follows includes a little bit of a murder and an awful lot of chicanery. We’re in the world of the fork-tongued dialogue, something Douglas is a proven talent at, and both Paltrow (here auditioning for the Grace Kelly memorial ice queen show) and Mortensen show they’re not bad at either. There’s no point pretending this isn’t a hugely stagy film. But it doesn’t seem to bother Davis, who realises that the “action” in this film comes entirely from the verbal jousting. The ending – it’s a bit thin – but by then the enjoyment has been had.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


A Perfect Murder – at Amazon




Wonder Boys

Robert Downey Jr, Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire




Michael Douglas plays the college prof with one book under his belt and a smart-ass student (Tobey Maguire) about to steal his thunder with his debut novel, which is going to be glorious, headline-grabbing, sexy, everything Douglas once was but now just isn’t. However, this fading wonder boy does still have enough residual kudos to make him a honeypot for a girl (Katie Holmes) who’s attractive dark-haired and far too young for him (and what a nudge nudge that was at the time). He’s also having an affair with his boss (Frances McDormand). And, on the weekend of frenzy that we catch up with him, he’s being pursued by his drug-monster editor, played by Robert Downey Jr (more good casting), who’s wondering how much longer his author is going to keep him waiting for his book. It’s been seven years. In short, Douglas is over 50 and has both the face and the life he deserves.

When this film first hit the screens, some critics were aghast that Douglas could happily play someone so unlike the Michael Douglas who’d been stalking movies since 1987’s Fatal Attraction – the alpha male busting with testosterone of Wall Street, Basic Instinct or The Game. And didn’t he look old. And dishevelled. But one of the real strengths of Douglas is indifference to what others think (Remember the hoo-haa when Falling Down came out?). But then maybe when you’ve got the Oscar, the dynasty and the girl, the opinions of others aren’t worth an awful lot.

Director Curtis Hanson’s first film since LA Confidential is funny, zappy and emotional. It’s an adult film in the best sense of the word – driven by character, comfortable with what it is, rich and complex. There are plenty of campus novels but not so many campus movies. Wonder Boys helps address the imbalance.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


Wonder Boys –  Watch it/buy it at Amazon


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Traffic started life as Traffik, a 1989 mega-mini-series following the heroin trail from Pakistan through Germany and into the UK. It was brutal, it was gruelling and it was a cracker. The decision to remake it as a leg-knotting 2hr 20 min single film, and transfer the action to Mexico and the US, delivers an extra hit, a political one. After all, the US government advocates free trade and the pursuit of happiness as unalienable principles while at the same time banning the importation and enjoyment of drugs. It’s this fault line that Traffic patrols, as it follows four interwoven stories: the drugs czar (Michael Douglas) with the addict daughter; the feds trying to bust a dealer; the wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) taking up the reins of her husband’s trafficking business; and the decent Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro) falling foul of the drugs barons. No one comes out smelling of roses, or poppies for that matter, in a masterfully shot film that doesn’t finger-wag, preferring an it’s-all-a-mess shrug. Result: both sides of the drugs debate count director Steven Soderbergh as one of their own. Two-way Traffic, I suppose.


Traffic – at Amazon