Viewer Guide: The China Syndrome and Sucker

April 24, 2020 | Richard Peña


The China Syndrome (1979)

This week’s classic is The China Syndrome, the 1979 dramatic thriller directed by James Bridges.

America’s simmering post-war anxiety over the safety of nuclear power reached a boiling point with this unexpectedly prescient “what if” scenario. In an Oscar-nominated performance, Jane Fonda stars in one of her best mid-career roles as Kimberly Wells, a local TV reporter whose typical “California Close-Up” assignments are usually limited to soft human interest stories like a new singing telegram service. Eager to break into real news reporting, Kimberly finds herself stymied by casual institutional sexism, with more attention paid to her hairstyle than her developing talents as a journalist. But while shooting a puff piece on the fictitious Ventana nuclear power plant with her cynical freelance cameraman Richard, played by Michael Douglas, the story of a lifetime practically explodes in her face—figuratively. Despite the unconvincing reassurances of the plant’s PR director, Kimberly and her crew witness an extraordinary scene of escalating panic in the Ventana control room. Surreptitiously filming the incident, Kimberly and Richard rush back to the station convinced they’ve stumbled upon the lead story for the six o’clock news… but that’s when things start to get more complicated. As a result of Richard’s rash behavior, Kimberly is forced to return to Ventana, where she encounters Jack Godell, the shift supervisor that she previously observed in the control room, portrayed in a riveting, Oscar-nominated performance by Jack Lemmon. A career-long company man, Godell initially tries to deflect Kimberly’s questioning, but soon makes an alarming discovery about the plant that forces him to take action to halt a potentially catastrophic threat.

Predictably, upon its release on March 16, 1979, The China Syndrome was attacked by the nuclear power industry as being one-sided “no-nukes” propaganda, an objection that was not entirely unfounded. Jane Fonda and her then-husband, activist Tom Hayden, were both famously opposed to nuclear power, with Fonda’s production company initially pursuing the rights to Karen Silkwood’s story before settling on The China Syndrome’s script by Mike Gray. But just twelve days after The China Syndrome’s release, the partial meltdown of a reactor at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear plant suddenly made the film’s unthinkable scenario not so unthinkable, with some circumstances of the Three Mile Island incident bearing an uncanny similarity to the fictionalized near accident dramatized in the film.

While Michael Douglas was originally only involved with the film as a producer, at the last minute he stepped into the role of Kimberly’s cameraman when negotiations with Richard Dreyfuss broke down too close to the start of filming. And in an eerie case of life imitating art, Stan Bohrman—the real TV news anchorman playing the movie’s fictional anchorman—found himself back at his day job…reporting on the real-life nuclear meltdown instead the make-believe crisis in the movie. I still remember those terrifying few days when news of Three Mile Island broke—and indeed, during that time I and thousands of others went to see The China Syndrome, to make us even more nervous, I guess! Although the health effects of the Three Mile Island accident were reportedly not as severe as originally feared, the official clean-up did not conclude until December 1993—at a total cost of $1 billion—with the too-close-for-comfort near-miss resulting in a major reduction in the construction of new nuclear power plants across the US. And in the years since Three Mile Island, the even more severe accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima have insured that the debate over nuclear energy remains as volatile as ever.


Sucker (2015)

This week’s indie is Sucker, a 2015 comedy directed by Ben Chessell.

Based on an autobiographically inspired one-man play by Australian comedian Lawrence Leung, Sucker stars YouTube sensation John Luc as Leung’s alter ego, a Chinese-Australian high school student also named Lawrence whose med school prospects are dashed by a regrettable cheating scheme gone awry during his math final. Infuriated by his transgression and cavalier attitude toward school, Lawrence’s immigrant parents decide to send him away for the summer to live with a strict uncle who can “set him on the right path.”

Except Lawrence’s uncle isn’t as strict as his parents think he is, and allows his nephew to join him in a favorite pastime that will teach him discipline, tradition and self-control—playing chess. And although his uncle’s chess club holds no interest for Lawrence, it’s there that he first encounters “the Professor,” played by the British character actor Timothy Spall, who proves to be just the sort of mentor that Lawrence needs to make good on his pledge to repay his parents “every last cent” they have wasted on his education. As it happens, the Professor’s area of expertise happens to be in the realm of human psychology, although not particularly of the scientific variety: the Professor is basically a roving con man—or “professional liar” as he prefers to call himself—shrewdly sizing up his targets’ personalities and foibles to manipulate them into a variety of profitable scams. Impressed with Lawrence’s astuteness, the Professor decides to take him under his wing. And with that, Lawrence embarks on a most unusual summer “internship,” although definitely not of the kind his parents would have ever imagined. Also starring is Lily Sullivan as Sarah, the Professor’s regular accomplice whose connection to his life may not be what it first seems.

With plot elements reminiscent of Preston Sturges’ great 1941 classic The Lady Eve starring Barbara Stanwyck as a con woman always a few steps ahead of a highly gullible Henry Fonda, Sucker is another recent example of a genre that has proven to be enduringly popular throughout the history of the movies. In fact, since the multiple Oscar-winning THE STING from 1973, con man movies seem to have become even more popular than ever, with a list of box office hits that include A Fish Called WandaThe GriftersHouse of GamesDirty Rotten Scoundrels—updated from Bedtime Story and recently reincarnated as The Hustle—as well as Catch Me If You Can and the Oceans Eleven franchise. And that’s only naming a few. What does it tell us about the minds and morals of movie audiences? Or maybe what does it tell us about America, and our seeming willingness to be conned, even by the most outlandish phonies? I guess I’ll just stop there. Well, in the immortal words of W.C. Fields, “never give a sucker an even break.”

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