So you want to make a left-wing propaganda movie? Then let’s see what we can learn from the most successful propaganda movie in history, to judge by actual political results, The China Syndrome. It was released in 1979, after more than a decade of steady building of nuclear power plants. Since then not a single new permit for a nuclear plant has been issued in the United States.

Correlation is not causation, and to be fair, The China Syndrome benefited from the best timing any movie has probably ever had. Three Mile Island, the worst industrial accident in history with zero casualties, followed the release of The China Syndrome by twelve days. One of the characters even muses about “contaminating an area the size of Pennsylvania.” You just can’t buy that kind of publicity. Americans had already begun to turn against nuclear power but after 1979 it was shelved, apparently permanently. This was arguably due at least as much to the movie as to the accident. There is a template for a successful propaganda movie, which The China Syndrome followed to the letter.

1. Choose your heroes advisedly. Nobody, but nobody, wants to watch heroic activists. This is one of the many reasons Costa-Gavras movies are as widely acclaimed as they are ignored. To establish your bona fides you will want to make your politically sympathetic characters as personally disagreeable as possible. And who could be more disagreeable than an already-grizzled Jane Fonda and a young and hirsute Michael Douglas? (An old and jowly Michael Douglas possibly excepted.) Douglas plays a bossy, vaguely counter-cultural cameraman of questionable hygiene habits. Fonda is the local TV bimbo who has stumbled onto the story of her life, which she doesn’t understand but tries to milk for all it’s worth notwithstanding. The anti-nuclear scientist, in a nice turn from Donald Hotton, is an obvious crank, with a supercilious manner and Warhol hair to prove it.

Our reluctant hero, played by Jack Lemmon, is a “shift supervisor” (a nice righteous proletarian title) at the power plant. “I love this plant,” he says to Fonda, and we believe him, because we always believe Jack Lemmon.

2. Admit the obvious. Everyone knows that anti-nuclear protestors are Luddite buffoons. So make a special point of showing them all standing up together at a hearing with masking tape on their mouths. This earns you extra objectivity points and costs you nothing.

3. Fictionalize history — the right way. In The China Syndrome a courier, and later Lemmon himself, is run off the road on his way to a regulatory hearing to deliver crucial incriminating documents, which disappear. Now where have we seen this before? Of course: it’s Karen Silkwood and Kerr-McGee! By replaying this hoary myth without directly referring to it, the movie reaps all of the benefits of imaginary history, without the fuss of being corrected in public by knowledgeable historians or the muss of untidy lawsuits.

4. Skate the science. So “core meltdowns” are effectively impossible in modern, non-graphite reactors. So what? Don’t bore the audience with stuff like this. Instead mutter a few imprecations about inconceivable disasters and concentrate on human error instead. Everyone understands human error. The China Syndrome contains fifteen seconds of misinformation on nuclear engineering, and it’s fifteen seconds too many.

5. Keep the villains offscreen. Give Satan too much screen time and someone is bound to accuse you of being of the Devil’s party without knowing it. Oliver Stone never quite learned this. If you must show the villains, and sometimes you must, show as many of them as possible to dilute any possible audience sympathy. In The China Syndrome a corrupt inspector, a vicious plant manager, a cold-blooded CEO, and a craven publicity man split ten minutes of face time among them. Capitalist malefactors are supposed to be faceless and soulless, right? Keep them that way.

6. No happy endings. Remember, you’re raising consciousness here; leave uplift to Hollywood lickspittles. No sad endings either: too didactic. Best of all are ambiguous endings, like the TV test pattern in the last scene of The China Syndrome. Is this the end of Southern California as we know it? Could be, unless we all get out there and do something right now.

OK team, you got all that? Now, break!

Aaron Haspel | Posted August 20, 2003 @ 5:23 PM | Movies

5 Responses to “Agitprop for Fun and Profit”

  1. 1 1. Michael Krantz

    Surely you aren’t suggesting that Gordon Gekko got too much screen time in Wall Street? Most fans of that film, which was arguably Oliver Stone’s best work, will acknowledge that Gekko is a perfect anti-hero whose "Greed is good" speech was more persuasive than Martin Sheen’s populist simpering, even if Stone didn’t really mean it to work out that way.


  2. 2 2. Aaron's sister

    Is this your fish-in-a-barrell summer? First it’s Bob Herbert, then The China Syndrome. What’s next, Jonathan Livingston Seagull?


  3. 3 3. Aaron's sister

    I mean barrel.


  4. 4 4. Aaron Haspel

    My, I have some literal-minded commentators today. I admire The China Syndrome, which is almost perfect of its kind and was hugely influential. On the other hand, I would no more remove Gordon Gekko from Wall Street than Satan from Paradise Lost.


  5. 5 5. nackery

    “So “core meltdowns” are effectively impossible in modern, non-graphite reactors.”

    It’s quite a few years down the track, but your comments on the safety of nuclear reactors were as ignorant then as they are today.

    Three reactors at Fukushima have not just experienced core meldowns – they now look to have ‘melted through’. The China Syndrome has now come to pass.


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