Scene Gems: Lemmon Defines Intensity in 'The China Syndrome'
The China Syndrome (1978) is a flat-out great movie, a political thriller with social relevance. Taking place in a fictitious California Nuclear Power facility, the story concerns an "accident" that takes place at the plant, which is quickly covered up by the plant's bureaucrats. A local TV crew at the plant is there for a fluff piece, but ends up illegally filming what happened. Tensions mount as the reporter (Jane Fonda) and her cameraman (Michael Douglas) effort to get the story on the air. The chief engineer (Jack Lemmon) just wants to find out the truth so he can return to the plant he loves.
Despite the left wing message (nuclear power isn't worth the risk), this is a solid film, intense and entertaining. The late Jack Lemmon (who is always great) turns in another manic, on-the-edge performance. His Jack Godell feels totally responsible for what happens, and knows that one wrong move could kill thousands of innocent people.
This scene is the first twist that sets the plot in motion. I love how Jack flips out when that stuck needle drops, exposing the critical mistake he just made by dumping an already low water reserve. He barely saves the place, but notice the tremor in the coffee: it's an important detail that will play later in the story ("There WAS a vibration!").
Director James Bridges stages this sequence perfectly. He uses a variety of techniques (crane, dolly, wides, close ups) to illustrate this event, slowly ramping up the suspense and ending in just the right place: a very tight shot on Lemmon's face.