I suppose James Bridges' The China Syndrome (1979) owes its success big-time to timing--premiering days before the Three Mile Island incident, which probably gave the audiences the (mostly mistaken) impression that this was an expose of what really went down inside of those menacingly faceless and huge containment structures. Imagine their surprise when they sat down and realized it's another of Bridges' skillful little character studies, of ordinary folk trying to negotiate some kind of path between private ethics and public duties, which on their best days achieve some kind of uneasy, undulating truce.
Hard to imagine a thriller like this being made today--a look not just at the nuclear power industry but at broadcast news from a feminist point of view; a quick precis not just of nuclear power, fuel pellets and damping rods and all ("don't get too technical!") but of the industrial application of nuclear power complete with technical jargon ('SCRAM,' auxiliary feed valves, and the aforementioned eponymous syndrome--which turns out to be pretty damned bad, but not the radioactive apocalypse the film threatens to loose upon the world).
Meantime we have this, and Bridges' brilliant little touches making all not just palatable but compulsively watchable: the way the alarm blares during the first incident, for example, a loud mechanical shrieking in the ear that affirms the panic-pushing nature of all such alarms; then Godell (Jack Lemmon) demands the alarm be switched off ("How can anyone expect to think with that racket?"). The eerie silence that follows is far more disturbing, as if Brooks had presented the ear-splitting stereotype then suddenly took it away; we're in unknown territory now, the building's alien rumblings and workers' tense mutterings anything but reassuring.
Bridges shows more confidence in the scenes involving broadcast journalism--he started in television, after all--and in sketching the subsequent rise of ambitious TV reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda). Fonda nicely underplays the frustrations she feels at being held back, at being seen as nothing more than a pretty face and ass (she hates it but buys into it all the same, because that's the only way you succeed in television). At the same time the way Bridges skewers spineless TV producers and inane news segments and the industry's pervasive sexism helps keep the heavier industrial drama from sinking too far into solemnity.
Along the way Bridges cooks up inventive little sequences that show his gift for thrilling audiences without pandering to them--the kill-the-courier scene with deliberate parallels to the Karen Silkwood affair; the even better later chase sequence, where Godell outwits his shadowy would-be killers in a manner the politically liberal Bridges would've approved of--by simply following his everyday route to work, the everyman's knowledge of familiar territory trumping the predators' presumably superior skill at demolition driving.
For the film's climax Bridges (for better or worse) reasserts old values, in particular the primary one--the veteran broadcast worker's need and duty to transmit information, as clearly and succinctly as possible. Godell, a nuclear plant supervisor, wouldn't have a clue how to do this properly (and Wells is presumably too raw a neophyte, too caught up in the drama of the moment, too ignorant of the issues involved to keep him focused). How many thrillers climax with a race to get information--not weapons, not gold, not some high-ranking hostage (but in many ways more valuable than all three)--out to the general public? How many thrillers turn on the as-yet unanswered question of a broadcast announcer's ability to keep her shit together, remain calm enough to reassure the unseen audience that yes she knows what she's talking about?
At first glance the film isn't much to look at--all cold concrete and steel, when it isn't panning over Los Angeles' interstate highways. But Bridges throws entire arrays of blinking lights above our heads ('situation boards,' the PR flunky informs us, informing plant employees that some technical issue needs immediate attention), gives us grainy video footage of gigantic steel masses shuddering in near collapse. And above all the relentless unvarying chatter of the teletype, printing out in emotionless language the step-by-step details of an oncoming disaster.