Silkwood June 20, 2017
Craig T. Nelson
2 Hrs., 11 Mins.
The dramatization of her brief life, Mike Nichols’ naturalistic Silkwood (1983), doesn’t care to speculate. It’s driven to bring Silkwood to life, to emphasize her everywomanhood and underscore her standing as a lower-middle-class heroine just as susceptible to the pitfalls of professional and personal disappointments as anyone. This is not a movie made with spectacle in its heart — the tragedy itself is almost an afterthought. It doesn’t feel like a biopic, being so grittily true to the misfortunes of bluec-collar life and so uninterested in emboldening its more melodramatic characteristics.
A movie directed by someone other than Nichols or written by someone other than Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen would take a road more traveled by, making Silkwood out to be an embodiment of small-town courage and making those who discounted her and ultimately destroyed her out to be villainous.
But in Silkwood, we don’t see any of that. Silkwood is courageous, yes, but she is also selfish, sad, and sometimes short-tempered. Her detractors are villainous in the sense that they oppose a woman we grow to deeply care for, but they are often just trying to protect their livelihoods. They become angry at Silkwood not because of her humanity or her activism but because her work could possibly derail their capacity to pay the rent. The movie plays out exactly as we infer it might have in 1974, without sensation and without contrived attempts to tug at our heartstrings.
Much of its brilliance lies in the performative authenticity of Meryl Streep, who gives one of her many exceptional performances as Karen Silkwood. She disappears into the role, her every mannerism so offhanded we hardly notice that we’re witnessing very intentional choices, not the ticks of a woman who lived and breathed for all too short a period. By its conclusion have we developed great affection for the woman Streep becomes, a woman who is as compassionate and self-deprecating as she is complicated and sometimes reckless.
We see Silkwood transform over the course of the film. When we first meet her, she is living with Drew Stephens (Kurt Russell), her boyfriend, and Dolly Pelliker (Cher, unrecognizable), her best friend. All work for at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site, making plutonium fuel rods for nuclear receptors day in and day out. All they know how to do is get by — they live in rural Oklahoma in a crumbling bungalow, after all.
But having been recently divorced, her ex-husband given full custody of her children, Silkwood has progressively begun seeing herself as an individual rather than someone’s wife. She has become a union activist particularly concerned with how the radiation at the plant might be affecting herself and her co-workers, vocalizing her concerns to her superiors. She’s perhaps never been so passionate about anything in her life.
Silkwood begins treading dangerous waters, however, when she discovers that the plant may be cutting corners to further their own gain. Because they’ve fallen behind on a contract binding them to provide fuel rods for a breeder reactor at the Hanford Site, they’ve been forcing employees to work overtime, suspicions arising that they’ve been falsifying safety reports. The welfare of workers could be at risk, and no one seems to be much concerned about it. Her employers, and even some of her co-workers, brush off her claims.
Unsatisfied, she decides to investigate for herself, and she’s shaken by what she finds. Those findings, of course, either led to her doom or were about to be shared before fate got in the way.
But, interestingly enough, scenes of inquiry feel obligatory. It’s the watching of the main characters go about their daily lives and how their relationships and their routines are impacted by Silkwood’s probings that make the film such a masterpiece of its genre. It’s concerned with what made her a hero, but it’s much more intrigued by how she lived. And we’re never any less than convinced that we’re watching people simply exist. Streep, Russell, and Cher are all major stars, but they all comprehensively vanish in their portrayals of these average, messed-up individuals.
The finale of Silkwood does cause one to wonder exactly what happened to its title figure. In the final moments of the film, she's driving in the darkest hours of the night, en route to a meeting with a New York Times journalist in which she’ll provide ample evidence of Kerr-McGee’s wrongdoings. But headlights behind her loom, suddenly becoming so bright the screen fades to black. Nichols doesn’t make it clear whether he believes she was murdered or if she was merely the victim of an automobile accident. But that isn’t something the feature mulls over. What it mulls over is the sadness of Silkwood’s passing, how tragic it was to see such an intelligent, impassioned young woman meet her demise before she could really prove herself to be a youthquake. A
he death of the whistleblower Karen Silkwood remains to be such a fascinating mystery because no explanation of it satisfies. What we think we have, and probably do have, is a case of corruption and greed playing hopscotch and offing a woman they believed to be a threat to their prosperity. Such, though, has never been confirmed. Investigations of her demise have decided it’s rather unclear if her downfall came at the hand of another or as the result of an accident. Maybe it was even suicide.