– The China Syndrome—Moment by Moment
– THE CHINA SYNDROME is in a minor way a well-done and exciting film; but it is without doubt one of the most gruesomely evil films ever made.
In a late Pasolini film (which I did not see, and whose name I do not remember) there is a scene, a kind of sardonic imitation of the Last Supper, in which the participants are served excrement. Apparently this was too much for even the liberal press; some reviewers said that the film is so evil that it should be banned. Yet such a scene would probably evoke no more than a temporary (though strong) revulsion in most viewers; I can't imagine it having a morally pernicious influence on anyone. What is evil, however, is to imbue people with falsehoods masquerading as truth, so that the reasoning guiding their action is based on lies. This is precisely what The China Syndrome does, and consequently it will probably produce more harm than a thousand degenerate Pasolini films put together. There are two main reasons.
The implausiblity of some of the characters and situations is one reason, but the lesser one, because many viewers can discern it for themselves. That the owners of a nuclear plant would want, and consistently try, to suppress facts about potentially deadly conditions in their own plant is highly implausible. Who would be so indifferent to something that could cause one's own death?
There are other obvious implausibilities. That the plant superintendent (Jack Lemmon), once he knew of a deliberate falsification, would go to the man who falsely signed the document, rather than to the company boss, would be inanely stupid and the consequences predictable. And that hired goon squads would kill the man who tried to point out the dangerous condition (in order to keep the secret from getting out) is also highly improbable, with the press and TV there on the scene. Fortunately, some members of the audience seem to sense some of these improbabilities.
But the second reason is more dangerous, because most of the audience won't have read enough to know that the "scientific facts" on which the film is premised aren't facts but fictions and fantasies. There are so many of these that it would take pages to delineate them all, but the curious reader can find the facts in Petr Beckmann's Health Hazards of Not Going Nuclear (Boulder: Golem Press, 1976). For example: (1) While no source of energy is 100 percent safe, in view of multiple safeguards, nuclear energy is far safer than oil, gas, coal, or other present energy sources; but the film shows nuclear energy as the least safe'"an outright lie. (2) Under no circumstances could a nuclear plant, even in an earthquake, generate an explosion like an atomic bomb: that would require uranium enriched to more than 90 percent, whereas even in a runaway nuclear reactor the percentage is below 3 percent (Beckmann, p. 42); so such an explosion isn't just vastly improbable; it's physically impossible. (3) Nations in western Europe and elsewhere have had nuclear power generators functioning smoothly for years, and never in all those times and places has there been a single fatal accident (more than can be said for any other form of energy); in addition, it is cheap and pollution-free. The film gives exactly the opposite impression to all this. (4) Even the supposedly intractable problem of nuclear wastes has been nicely taken care of (Beckmann, pp. 101-4) in other countries; in the United States such solutions have been stymied by Carter's executive orders.
The film is anti-industry and anti-technology, but not anti-government: the government enters the film as the savior of the situation in response to the "greed" of private industry. As such, it aids and abets totalitarianism and hammers another nail in the coffin of freedom. There is hardly a surer way to turn the United States into a totalitarian State than by drying up its sources of energy. There are abundant sources of fossil energy, but the government is regulating these industries to death. That leaves only nuclear. But once people have had the hell scared out of them by threats of disasters in nuclear plants, that leaves'"nothing: no energy, no more production, no more wealth; only massive starvation and passive ants in an inert anthill controlled by the regulators enforcing universal poverty from above.
This film richly deserves to be called false propaganda, evil, obscene, and many another such epithets. For if the propaganda message of this film were to succeed, the result would be infinitely worse than that of any nudity, sex, or violence that could possibly be displayed on the screen, even to children.
Should this film, then, be banned, as liberals who monotonously chant praise of it have recommended doing with Pasolini's film? No, it should be replied to in the form of at least one powerfully made film that simply tells the truth. Unfortunately, there is probably no movie producer waiting in the wings to do such a film. If there were, its beneficial impact could be enormous beyond the power of words to describe.
– MOMENT BY MOMENT the film drags on interminably toward its end. The script is unbelievably stupid; the two principals (Lily Tomlin and John Travolta) are badly miscast in their roles; and the audience before long takes to cheering and hissing, not in response to what is happening on the screen (that soon becomes too dull to merit a response), but in recognition of settings, mostly Beverly Hills and Malibu, where the film was shot.
Yet the idea behind it all was far from stupid. In hundreds of films a younger woman falls in love with an older man; in this film these roles are reversed, and the idea has many possibilities that deserve to be explored. A good film on this theme could make the viewer feel with devastating power what it would be like to be in (for example) the role of the woman in this film, so that when the depiction of some external event (in itself trivial) is repeated'"for example, she hoses off her feet after coming in from the beach'"the contrast between this simple act occurring before her love affair and again after it would be gripping in its emotional quality, the second incident triggering a surge of powerful feeling through the recollection of all that had gone on between.
There are films that have achieved such effects. The British film Brief Encounter treated the love affair between two people (each married to someone else) with just such poignancy, including a careful selection and accumulation of details to evoke a response of almost unbearable intensity. Perhaps the greatest film of all in this genre is Le Diable du Corps (Devil in the Flesh), dealing with the unexpected but bewilderingly powerful development of adolescent love. In both this film and Moment by Moment there is a scene in which she is in front of the fireplace as he comes in out of the rain'"but the handling is worlds apart in the two films. If the writer and the director of Moment by Moment had seen either of these two other films, they would, I hope, have had the aesthetic decency to prevent their film from being shown in any public place.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".