Hollywood’s Greatest Year: How ‘The China Syndrome’ Blew Up

Part of our film-by-film flashback to the cinematic glory of 1979

Rich Cohen
Feb 21 · 7 min read
Credit: Archive Photos / Stringer/Getty Images Plus

The greatest year in the history of American movies was 1979, and I intend to prove it, movie by movie, as we make our way through 2019, the 40th anniversary of that extraordinary season. While it’s true that the best movie ever made (Citizen Kane) came out in 1941, that was a one-timer, a lone traveler, a bird blown off course. Overall quality is what I have in mind, excellence across genres, the kind of groove that rewards regular visits to the multiplex. The year 1979 was the kind of year that turned even the rink rats into cinephiles.

First, the list: Alien. Apocalypse Now. Kramer vs. Kramer. Being There. Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The Warriors. Breaking Away. The Jerk. Escape From Alcatraz. The Black Stallion. Norma Rae. The Amityville Horror. The Wanderers. North Dallas Forty. Electric Horseman. The Great Santini. The In-Laws. Rock ’n’ Roll High School. A Little Romance. The Onion Field. The Frisco Kid.

Even the bad ones — 1941, The Champ — were interesting, since, like the masterpieces, they were part of what today, in hindsight, can be seen as a collective project — the creation and relentless promotion of a whole new philosophical pose. These movies taught us how to live in a world that was fucked, in a nation that had once touched greatness and then lost it the way you lose your nerve. In the movies of 1979, the game is always fixed, the heroes weak, the officials corrupt. And there is not a damn thing you can do about it. To imagine you might triumph is to be a fool, a pitiable figure who does not even know he’s being mocked. But though you might not control your life, and certainly not the system, you could at least adopt the appropriate attitude. It was all about style, pose, how you looked at things.

Four decades later, I decided to watch the movies again, looking for a clue as to how that me became this me and how that America became this fucked-up nightmare of a place.

The year 1979 was the tail of the moment that came after Watergate and the Vietnam War. It was the breath we took before Reagan became president, a kind of interregnum, a pause between the delirium of empire and the delusion that somehow, after all that, we’d gotten it back. In pop culture, that moment marked the death of the hero and the birth of the antihero, the man who sees behind the lie, who knows the official story is bullshit. The resulting movies were filled with cover-ups and conspiracies, fall guys, scapegoats, martyrs to the system, bell-bottoms, sideburns, aging hippies, and sex. Bill Murray’s first movie was released in 1979. It was called Meatballs, and it made him into our Humphrey Bogart. Whereas the Greatest Generation had Bogie saying, “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” we had Bill Murray telling a room full of summer-camp kids, “And even if we win… Even if we play so far over our heads that our noses bleed for a week to 10 days, even if God in Heaven above comes down and points his hand at our side of the field, even if every man, woman, and child held hands together and prayed for us to win, it just wouldn’t matter, because all the really good-looking girls would still go out with the guys from Mohawk, because they’ve got all the money.”

I turned 11 years old in 1979, and these movies determined my worldview, made me me. And so, four decades later, I decided to watch them all again, hoping they’d offer a clue as to how that me became this me and how that America became this fucked-up nightmare of a place. I could have done it chronologically, starting with a sleeper like Time After Time or the Albert Brooks masterpiece Real Life, which foresaw the future (our present) as well as Nostradamus. Or I could have started started with Oscar nominees—All That Jazz, And Justice for All, The Rose—or big earners like Rocky II or The Muppet Movie or Ten (how would that one play today?). Instead, I’m starting with the movie that, for me, perfectly captured the earnestness, mission, and terror of 1979.

The China Syndrome was nominated for four Academy Awards (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Production Design) and featured legendary actors from both the old and new generations — you had Jack Lemmon, who performed beside James Cagney and Henry Fonda in Mr. Roberts, appearing with Jane Fonda, who, seven years before, in the time of Klute, posed atop an anti-aircraft gun being used against American pilots in Vietnam. Michael Douglas, who produced the film, plays a hippie trying to find his way in the straight world 10 years after Woodstock. (By 1998, this same character—the crusading hippie had been a familiar type in my childhood—had become the Dude, Jeffrey Lebowski.)

The plot centers around a near accident at a nuclear power plant and its cover-up, the text being the danger of this new technology, the subtext being: WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!! Douglas is a local cameraman named Richard Adams, who, along with television reporter Kimberly Wells (Fonda), witnesses and tries to report on the accident. Fonda is playing a straight version of the character parodied by Christina Applegate in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, fighting her way from fluff — the movie opens with her piece on singing telegrams — to hard news.

In one segment, Wells schools her TV audience in the basics of nuclear power: There’s a radioactive core that creates energy in the form of heat. If at any point that core is exposed to air, it builds to a terrifying temperature so great that it will melt into the earth, possibly continuing all the way to China, hence the title of the film. (In reality, the core would sink until it hit water, which would turn to steam and explode, sending a radioactive plume into the sky.)

As a child, I was terrified of nuclear annihilation. Not a day went by when I did not worry about being blown away by an atomic accident or bomb. We did not have the luxury of climate change—a slow, seemingly inexorable squeeze. At worst, we’d be irradiated, wander a postapocalyptic landscape, then die. At best, we’d be killed instantly, perhaps leaving a shadow burned into a brick wall.

Think of the psychotic break created by the invention of the bomb. Just like that, humankind’s sense of its place in the cosmos had been fundamentally altered. It wasn’t just the possibility of self-annihilation, but the notion that we’d busted into the machinery, gotten into the gearbox of God. The upside was a near infinite supply of power — the same force that drives the sun, is how they put it in science class. But the very force that would free us will kill us if mishandled, and, as anyone who grew up in the glow of Meatballs can tell you, people eventually mishandle everything. (It’s fitting that The China Syndrome was parodied by Bill Murray in one of the all-time great SNL skits, in which Murray spills a Pepsi on a nuclear-plant control panel, causing a meltdown that only Dan Ackroyd’s Jimmy Carter can arrest.)

Twelve days after the film’s release, a stuck valve in a reactor on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania resulted in a partial meltdown.

The China Syndrome is as much about the media’s failure as it is about nuclear power. The television executive wants to kill the story because there’s money to be made, big shots to be placated. In the end, Wells teams with a whistleblower to broadcast her scoop — after Watergate, the media was seen as the only hope. But in the end, the goons win (they nearly always did in 1979), martyring the poor son of a bitch on the floor of the plant.

The movie was attacked even before its premiere — denounced by government officials, energy tycoons, and atomic engineers as a panic-spreading farce. Experts dismissed the scenario of the film — a faulty gauge causes a technician to nearly expose the core — as ludicrous. It simply could not happen. Then, on March 28, 1979—just 12 days after the film’s release — a stuck valve in a reactor on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania set off a chain of events eerily close to those depicted in the film, resulting in a partial meltdown and a venting of radioactive steam. The worst did not happen, but how close had we come? Amid the freak-out that followed, the movie was pulled from some theaters — it played too close to the news. It was arguably the impact of these two events — the movie followed by Three Mile Island — that scared people off nuclear power, making carbon emissions that much harder to curb. Nuclear plants are still the best option, but nobody wants to live within 50 miles of one.

Full-blown disaster actually came in Chernobyl, in modern Ukraine, in April 1986, when a light-water reactor exploded, sending radioactivity to the heavens. It was as if someone had dropped a bomb on the city. Thirty-one people died right away; others succumbed over the years. The land itself was contaminated — hundreds of thousands of acres, abandoned in the aftermath, remain deserted. Check out Google Maps — empty buildings and swimming pools, a ruined Ferris wheel against a glowering sky.

That cityscape is a picture of the world we’d all live in if we had continued along the path we’d been following since the first atomic bomb was detonated in New Mexico in 1945. In this sense, The China Syndrome, like so many films in 1979, could just as easily have been called Apocalypse Now. Watching it again, I am amazed at how similar the mood was then to the way we feel today. I find it comforting. People always think the world is just about to end. Which means it probably isn’t.

Rich Cohen

Written by

Author bestselling books on gangsters, Chicago Cubs and Bears, the Rolling Stones. New book is “The Last Pirate of New York.” Co-Creator of HBO’s Vinyl.

Cineplex ’79
Cineplex ’79
Cineplex ’79

About this Column

Cineplex ’79

Cineplex ’79 is a new column from Rich Cohen, who is out to prove that 1979 was the greatest year in movie history, with a periodic look back at the best of the bunch.

Cineplex ’79 is a new column from Rich Cohen, who is out to prove that 1979 was the greatest year in movie history, with a periodic look back at the best of the bunch.

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