Michael Douglas Discusses Upcoming Nuclear-Themed Projects on 40th Anniversary of 'China Syndrome'

Michael Lynn Jones
Michael Douglas

The actor joined Rep. Ted Lieu, Ben Rhodes, Kennette Benedict, Yasmeen Silva and others to discuss how entertainment plays a role in preventing the spread and use of deadly force.

One of Michael Douglas’ first films, China Syndrome, questioned the safety and validity of nuclear power plants. That fact is something that Ploughshares Fund president Joseph Cirincione — who heads up the organization's mission of supporting initiatives that seek to prevent the use and expansion of nuclear weapons — was quick to mention during the event “A New Nuclear Arms Race? Hollywood’s Role in Building Momentum for a Safer World," which featured Douglas as a speaker, at the Pacific Design Center Monday night.

Was the timing of the event meant to coincide with the film's 40th anniversary, which is this weekend? Cirincione told The Hollywood Reporter the fortuitous timing was just a coincidence. “Eleven days after that movie opened, it had a lot of criticism from the nuclear power industry. Then Three Mile Island happened and that alerted Michael to the real danger," Cirincione told THR. “This wasn't just a script element. It was a real danger, and he started feeling responsibility to get involved and do something about it.”

Douglas, who is now an advisory board member of the Ploughshares Fund as well as a supporter of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and a UN messenger of Peace since 1998, joined Cirincione on a trip to Geneva two years ago to meet with NGOs and get them to “cooperate rather than compete,” Cirincione told The Hollywood Reporter.

During the event, Douglas —who spoke alongside fellow panelists Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., former deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, nuclear expert Kennette Benedict and Beyond the Bomb organizer Yasmeen Silva — said that he is currently working on story outlines for two films concerning nuclear subject matter, too. One is about former leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and former U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s diplomacy in Reykjavik; the second is based on Seven Days in May (1964), which his father, Kirk Douglas, starred in. “Hopefully, other people are working on others, too, but it's a tough subject,” he told THR. Douglas will be producing and acting in these upcoming motion pictures, he said.

When asked if he believes Hollywood has a responsibility to communicate the message of peace, Douglas told THR: “I never think Hollywood has a responsibility to make a message. They have their responsibilities to make good movies and if some of those movies are good and happen to have a message, then so much the better, but people are not going to go see a message."

Douglas added, "I learned a lot going way back with China Syndrome and how that evolves — you just have to have a good story and good characters.”

Paul Redford, television writer and producer behind The West Wing and Madame Secretary, echoed that need for humanizing the issues through characters in politically based television and film at the event.

“It doesn't have to be Morgan Freeman as president. It doesn't have to be somebody larger than life,” Redford told THR. "It's somebody who's a great character but is still utterly relatable and someone that you feel you can have in your living room in the way you can't have a real president. Hopefully you have his or her problems in your living room as well. The more you can identify with what a Martin Sheen [The West Wing] or what a Téa Leoni [Madam Secretary] goes through, the more empathy and respect it gives you for the people actually doing that job.”

Another member of the night's Hollywood attendees was David Grae, the executive producer and writer of CBS' Madam Secretary. Grae won the Norman Lear Center 2018 Sentinel Award for Madam Secretary (alongside creator/showrunner Barbara Hall) for season four's final episode, “Night Watch.” The episode depicted “what could happen if there’s a mistake made during a nuclear hair trigger alert,” Grae told THR.

But with the dramatization of a nuke narrative came the need for accuracy and objectivity, the showrunner told THR. The show's creators worked with the Norman Lear Center’s Hollywood Health and Society’s program, which recruited more advisers and experts than the show ever had on any other episode, he said. One of those advisers was Cirincione, but Grae emphasized that the consultants came from both sides of the issue.

“We don’t look at issues as Democratic issues or Republican issues,” Grae told THR. “We look at them as American issues, and I think we all believe that a stable, rational steady hand should hold the presidency when that person wields this kind of power.”

Redford echoed this importance: "The challenge of writing a Madam Secretary or a West Wing is it's not reality, but it's only two degrees away from reality. We want to make sure it's not a science fiction world because nuclear weapons are doomsday weapons, they seem fantastic, but in sort of the day-to-day reality,” Redford told THR.