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The China Syndrome: The Whistleblower With Box Office Power


There are several great feature films about whistleblowers.  The one that did the best at the box office (U.S. gross) is The China Syndrome, released in 1979.  According to The Numbers, its draw exceeded that of The Insider , starring Russel Crowe as a man who rats out big tobacco.  It even bested The Constant Gardener and the shocking-but-true story of Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep) in Silkwood .  So what made this movie about an accident at a nuclear power plant so powerful (pun intended)?  On March 28, 1979, just days after the film opened in theaters, the Three Mile Island accident (which made the movie’s content all-too-real) was all over the news.  There’s no proof that the frightening incident drove people to the theater, but it definitely brought the issue into people’s homes.  The film’s poster said “soon you will know,” and soon, people did.

It’s also a well-made, incredibly suspenseful film.  Jack Lemmon, as the reluctant whistleblower, is the perfect everyman who doesn’t start out courageous or politically engaged.  But he comes to realize that the plant owners care more about money than safety and will do anything, anything, to keep the truth from getting out.  It’s heartbreaking to watch as Lemmon’s character tells the truth, not out of hate for the plant but because he loves it.

The China Syndrome is on AMC today, Wednesday, January 30 at 12:15 p.m. | 11:15C.

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