Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The China Syndrome (1979)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The China Syndrome (1979)

In James Bridges' cautionary political thriller-drama, released only 12 days before a similar disaster scenario at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania:

  • the scene of long-time, conscientious, hard-working Ventana (California) nuclear power plant engineer Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) feeling an unusual vibration or "shudder" signaled by his shaking coffee cup: ("I know the vibration was not normal") and readings of high radiation on level 8 and faulty gauge readings, resulting in his impulsive decision to open up relief valves during an emergency shutdown (SCRAM) that caused extremely low and dangerous levels of coolant water in the reactor - that could have initiated a meltdown
  • the tense scene in which ambitious Channel 3 TV reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) and her cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) were watching and secretly recording the developing crisis from the visitor's gallery
  • Jack's frantic phone call to alert Operations about evacuating the plant, after realizing the inherent danger: ("We have a serious condition. You get everybody into safety areas and make sure that they stay there"), and the all-clear sounded by Jack's co-worker Ted Spindler (Wilford Brimley) about the gauge readings:: ("It's coming up!") - resulting in obvious expressions of relief
  • the analysis of the problem: ("They might have come close to exposing the core" - "If that's true, then we came very close to The China Syndrome")
  • the thrilling and suspenseful concluding sequence of Jack pulling out a gun, evacuating the control room and locking himself inside and demanding to speak on live TV to Kimberly after realizing that a lethal meltdown might be triggered by going to full power again: ("a sudden surge could kick that off again"), and his resolve to report that there were numerous nuclear power plant violations, safety coverups and defects in the system that needed to be revealed
  • Jack's conversation with reporter Kimberly Wells from inside the locked control room when a SWAT team suddenly cut the broadcast signal, entered the control room and shot Jack dead
  • in the aftermath, a plant official's interpretation to the media about the situation and Jack's condition: "The public was never in any danger at any time... an emotionally-disturbed employee was humored just long enough to get the situation under control"
  • Kimberly's on-the-spot contradictory interview with a reluctant Ted Spindler, who praised Jack: "He said this plant ought to be shut down...Jack Goddell was my best friend. I mean, these guys are painting him as some kind of a looney. He wasn't a looney. He was the sanest man I ever knew in my life....I mean, he wouldn't have done what he did if there wasn't some - ..Jack Goddell wasn't that kind of guy. I didn't know all the particulars. He told me a few things. There's gonna be an investigation this time. And the truth will come out, and people will know that my good friend Jack Goddell wasn't a lunatic. He was a hero. Jack Goddell was a hero."
Final Two Broadcast Interviews
Interview with Ted Spindler
("He was a hero")
Kimberly's Sign-Off
  • the final moments of the broadcast when a shaken Kimberly tried to summarize: "I met Jack Goddell two days ago, and I'm convinced that what happened tonight was not the act of a drunk or a crazy man. Jack Goddell was about to present evidence that he believed would show that this plant should be shut down. I'm sorry I'm not very objective. Let's just hope it doesn't end here. This is Kimberly Wells Live, Channel 3."

Coffee Cup "Shudder"

Reporters Kimberly Wells and Richard Adams

Nuclear Power Plant Engineer Jack Godell
(Jack Lemmon)

Jack Shot Dead in Control Room


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