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.


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Religious Wars

15th century: Crusades against Hussites, thousands slain. [DO30]
1538 pope Paul III declared Crusade against apostate England and all English as slaves of Church (fortunately had not power to go into action). [DO31]
1568 Spanish Inquisition Tribunal ordered extermination of 3 million rebels in (then Spanish) Netherlands. Thousands were actually slain. [DO31]
1572 In France about 20,000 Huguenots were killed on command of pope Pius V. Until 17th century 200,000 flee. [DO31]
17th century: Catholics slay Gaspard de Coligny, a Protestant leader. After murdering him, the Catholic mob mutilated his body, "cutting off his head, his hands, and his genitals... and then dumped him into the river [...but] then, deciding that it was not worthy of being food for the fish, they hauled it out again [... and] dragged what was left ... to the gallows of Montfaulcon, 'to be meat and carrion for maggots and crows'." [SH191]
17th century: Catholics sack the city of Magdeburg/Germany: roughly 30,000 Protestants were slain. "In a single church fifty women were found beheaded," reported poet Friedrich Schiller, "and infants still sucking the breasts of their lifeless mothers." [SH191]
17th century 30 years' war (Catholic vs. Protestant): at least 40% of population decimated, mostly in Germany. [DO31-32]

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