NPR Uses 'The China Syndrome,' 'On the Beach' to Hype Radiation Threat

On Monday's All Things Considered, NPR's Bob Mondello used movies about fictional nuclear disasters, such as "The China Syndrome" and "Silkwood," to play up atomic energy's hazards. Mondello especially highlighted the 1959 movie "On the Beach" as supposedly coming the closest to the portraying a real-life radiation catastrophe, such as the ongoing crisis at the Japanese nuclear plant.

Host Melissa Block noted the movie critic's 2010 report comparing Hollywood disaster films to the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster in her introduction: "Last summer, as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was finally brought under control...Bob Mondello did a comparison for us on Hollywood disaster movies and how they differ from real world disasters. Well, in the last few weeks, as tragic events have played out in Japan, Bob realized he had left something out of that story: the menace that can't be seen."

After briefly comparing movie depictions of tsunamis to the actual footage of the deluges, Mondello turned to the focus of his report, but instead of leading with the more dramatic portrayals of nuclear disasters, he began with the less serious:

MONDELLO: ...What about that post-tsunami threat in Japan: nuclear radiation? Hollywood has spent more than a half-century trying to figure out how to put that on-screen. A nuclear blast? It can show. It shows all the time, in fact. But radiation is invisible, tricky for a medium known as motion pictures. Not impossible, mind you- Steven Spielberg famously made 'Jaws' suspenseful, largely by keeping his shark out of sight. He knew that what you couldn't see would scare you silly. So for much of the film, all he showed of his great white was a fin. (audio clip of 'Jaws' soundtrack)

The problem with nuclear radiation is there's no fin. Invisible means invisible. So filmmakers have had to look for ways to physicalize the idea of contamination. Were scientists saying radiation could cause mutations in the 1950s? Cue Godzilla. (audio clip of Godzilla's roar) Also, ants the size of buildings, humanoids with superpowers. But that was transparently silly; at once, an obvious exaggeration and not nearly as scary as the real thing.

The NPR critic then played two clips from "The China Syndrome," an film cited by the mainstream media in the wake of the Three Mile Island incident in 1979, as the MRC's Julia Seymour pointed out earlier in 2011. He also highlighted the 1983 film "Silkwood":

MONDELLO: ...Hollywood needed other strategies. Here's one it came up with: a Geiger counter. (audio clip of a Geiger counter) A Geiger counter can at least make radiation sound alarming, and in a pinch, a director can extend alarming with an actual alarm (audio clip of klaxon alarm) or two.

JACK LEMMON (from the movie "The China Syndrome"): Ted, stabilize the reactor.


MONDELLO: Or six, as the movie 'China Syndrome' did.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 1 (from the movie "The China Syndrome") (Bell alarm sounds) Radiation containment.

BRIMLEY: Must be that safety valve just opened after the trip.

LEMMON: Somebody turn off the damned alarm.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 1: Jack, we still have high radiation on Level 8.

LEMMON: It's perfectly normal.

MONDELLO: None of this, let's note, is terribly cinematic. During that racket, the folks on screen are stuck in a control room looking urgently at dials and gauges. A few years later, to be both more visual and more visceral, the movie 'Silkwood' would show audiences the effects of radiation: burned skin, nausea, hair loss, not to mention the brutal effort to cleanse a plutonium-plant worker after she'd been exposed.

MERYL STREEP (from the movie "Silkwood"): Oh, shoot! (screams and cries)

Near the end of his report, Mondello did acknowledge that none of his featured movies came close to reality. But he bizarrely turned to a fictional portrayal of a nuclear apocalypse as something that was the closest to "real":

MONDELLO: This approach risks turning radiation exposure into disease-of-the-week material. So directors came up with horror flicks with irradiated zombies; more serious pictures with grey landscapes that looked not at all like the lush greenery that's now around Chernobyl. Cautionary? Sure. But as news reports on Japan's crippled reactors remind us, not quite real.

For real, nobody has ever gotten it righter than director Stanley Kramer did way back in 1959. He was adapting Neville Shute's novel, 'On the Beach,' about a clutch of survivors in Australia about a year after World War III. Nuclear blasts and radiation had wiped out all animal life in the Northern Hemisphere. But Kramer didn't show any carnage. He just had submarine commander Gregory Peck let us know that wind currents were now wafting south.

GREGORY PECK (from the movie "On the Beach"): When we put our nose up north of Iwo Jima, the air was filled with radioactive dust. So we ducked. Later on, took a look at Manila through the periscope; still too hot to surface, so we came on down the coast of Australia and ended up here. There wasn't much of any place else to go.

MONDELLO: The film never tried to show us what was doing all this. Not with charts, or maps, or Geiger counters. It didn't show bodies or burns. The characters we met were pictures of health. They weren't being affected yet. They just knew they would be, and soon, and horribly. So one by one, these last survivors took their own lives. On screen, in the end, radiation just wasn't, and neither were we. I'm Bob Mondello.

- Matthew Balan is a news analyst at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter