FLASHBACK: "China Syndrome" Opened two Weeks Before Three Mile Island

by Tony Rutherford , HNN Entertainment Editor
Jane Fonda in "China Syndrome" (c) Columbia
Jane Fonda in "China Syndrome" (c) Columbia

HUNTINGTON, WV (HNN) – March 1979 recalls a period in which downtown Huntington had three theatres on Fourth Avenue, the Keith Albee, the Cinema and the Camelot.

At that time, the studios did not do the ultra wide releases with flicks playing on two screens and multiple showtimes. No, they wanted the first couple of weeks to sell out guaranteeing a long run and ‘legs’ for the picture.

Theatre owners determined their bookings by anticipating which films would play the longest. The longer the film ran, the bigger their profit. Studios insisted on two, four and eight week minimum runs even in cities the size of Huntington.

Huntington’s three cinemas, owned by the Hyman family, often looked for line ups that were ‘sure things’ to draw Huntington audiences. That meant passing up some nationally popular films, in favor of what likely would be of greater interest to Tri State residents.

Charleston, WV had more screens, so more first run films opens on the national release dates. If I remember, they had the Capitol, Kearse, State, Village, Virginian, Plaza East 1 & 2, and several theatres in St. Albans and Nitro, all competing for first run product.

The Virginian Theatre (now a parking lot) opened the Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, and Jack Lemmon starring feature concerning an investigative reporter concerned about the safety of nuclear reactors. At that time, the title ‘china syndrome’ was synonymous for what we now call “melt down.”

“Syndrome’s” plot concerning a nuclear electric generating station where safety steps were skirted opened on screens a couple of weeks before Three Mile Island.

After the real life ‘publicity’ mounted, the intellectual drama was sent out to more and more theatres , now in the small and medium sized cities. It played to sell out audiences for weeks.

Vincent Canby, NY Times movie critic, had the following to say about “China Syndrone” on March 16, 1979:

In the atomic age, technology has been accelerating at a rate that leaves many of us exhausted, if not fearful. For someone who hasn't yet learned how to dominate a high-spirited electric typewriter, the thought of nuclear energy—with its potential for good as well as for destruction — turns the imagination into a nervous heap.

It's these apprehensions that are called forth by "The China Syndrome," James Bridges's smashingly effective, very stylish suspense melodrama … "The China Syndrome," evokes the spectacle of the terrifying things that might happen should there be a lapse in the safety procedures at an electrical generating plant powered by nuclear energy. The time is now and the place is southern California. The film is as topical as this morning's weather report, as full of threat of hellfire as an old-fashioned Sunday sermon and as bright and shiny and new-looking as the fanciest science-fiction film.

It stars Jane Fonda as a clever, ambitious television news reporter named Kimberly Wells, a woman who keeps a turtle for a pet, who doesn't let her private life take precedence over her public image and who knows she is not going to make big-time network news by doing chatty features about singing messengers. It also stars Michael Douglas as Richard Adams, Kimberly's cameraman, a 60's radical turned into a 70's skeptic, a fellow who sees conspiracies everywhere, who wants to be a part of the establishment but keeps biting the hand that would feed him.

In the best role he's had in a long time, Jack Lemmon appears as Jack Godell, a key official in the nuclear-energy station where Kimberly and her television crew, on a routine story assignment, happen to witness what the public-relations man blithely calls "a routine turbine trip."

On further investigation, the reporters learn that what they saw was, in fact, far from routine and was, instead, in the jargon of the trade, "a potentially costly event." In this case, "event" means a malfunctioning that could have resulted in a "meltdown"—called the China syndrome—leading in turn to the destruction of the plant and the creation of a radioactive cloud capable of laying waste to half of Southern California.

Could this happen? I've no idea, but the film makes a compelling case based on man's not-so-rare predisposition to cut corners, to take the easy way out, to make a fast buck, to be lazy about responsibility and to be awed by the authority representing vested interests.

"The China Syndrome" is less about laws of physics than about public and private ethics. The film isn't only concerned with safety procedures, but also with the ethics of a certain kind of journalism that packages news that won't offend. Also, in the course of the story, both Kimberly Wells, woman reporter, and Jack Godell, who has dedicated his life to the priesthood of technology, must make decisions that have the effect of denying all they've done before.


So haunting, Canby’s “Could this happen?” Three Mile Island took place March 30, 1979, about two weeks after he wrote the review.