First screened in May 1999 / Most recently screened in July 2016
Director: Mike Nichols. Cast: Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, Cher, Ron Silver, Craig T. Nelson, Sudie Bond, E. Katherine Kerr, Fred Ward, David Strathairn, Bruce McGill, Diana Scarwid, Charles Hallahan, Josef Sommer, J.C. Quinn, Henderson Forsythe, Kent Broadhurst, Richard Hamilton, James Rebhorn, Will Patton, Ray Baker, Tess Harper, M. Emmet Walsh, Bill Cobbs. Screenplay: Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen.

Twitter Capsule: Keen-eyed drama, taut thriller, brave exposé. The film is many things, as is Karen. Few movies admit complexity so well.

VOR:   A 70s-style thriller-cum-character study-cum topical drama-cum-women's picture, from the rare vantage of the rural worker. Shows Streep and Nichols at their peaks, while stretching both.

Photo © 1983 20th Century Fox
Silkwood tells the factually-based story of a 28-year-old employee at a nuclear processing plant in Oklahoma who died under mysterious circumstances, just as she was taking her biggest steps toward exposing the unsafety of her working conditions, the flagrant dishonesty of company policies, even the dark suggestion of corporate plotting against her own life. Karen Silkwood's trajectory begins in a compelling mixture of the quotidian and the dangerous, an atmosphere perfectly captured in the first group shots of jovial, unbeautiful Kerr-McGee employees who sift plutonium particles in a hermetically sealed "glovebox" while trading jokes, swapping shifts, popping bubble-gum, and taking the piss out of their boss. From there, the screenplay traces its arc into escalating threats, political epiphanies, and a heroine's demise, unavoidably swabbed in conjectures all the way from an activist's martyrdom to drug-laced recklessness to plain bad luck. What screenwriter could resist material this rich, not to mention a forthrightly political film so easily saleable as a suspense thriller? Silkwood was indeed a hit, delivered to the public with the promise of invisible henchmen, noirish lighting, bold casting of stars against type, and the sensational tagline "Who killed Karen Silkwood?", also the title of one of several case-related books that sprouted in the nine years between her cryptic auto accident and the bow of the film.

I suppose it would be hard for a filmmaker as deft as Mike Nichols and a star as scrupulous and challenge-seeking as Meryl Streep to make anything less than a satisfying movie from such promising ingredients. The worst possible outcomes range somewhere between the star-serving theatrics of Norma Rae or the indiscriminate didacticism of North Country, and even those films retain some considerable merits. Still, Silkwood attains a kind of depth and distinctiveness for which those other movies don't even try, and its success begins at the level of the writing. Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen's screenplay opts not to abstract the liberal crusade of Karen Silkwood, despite the urgency and bravery of her efforts. For legal reasons, all of the hazards and corporate malfeasance on view in Silkwood derive closely from public-record documents related to the case, keeping hearsay to a minimum and solidifying a strong, persuasive indictment against the now-defunct Kerr-McGee factory. Still, Ephron and Arlen thread the stakes of Karen's campaign not through holistic concepts of justice and nobility but through the plausible, ramshackle, emotionally shaded realities of the workers' lives. By focusing in such an expansive and unhurried way on Karen's domestic life with her boyfriend Drew (Kurt Russell) and their live-in friend Dolly (Cher), embracing all of their foibles with ex-spouses, abandoned children, new lovers, and their own dysfunctional and asymmetrical attachments to each other, Silkwood achieves impressive credentials as a drama of human character, not just as a screed against intolerable public practice. If Kerr-McGee is indeed condemning its workers to almost certain radioactive exposure, if medical consultants across the country are indeed refusing to disclose the facts about plutonium's carcinogenic power, if money-minded bosses and in-house operatives are indeed conspiring not just to silence a voice like Karen's but to make her a pariah among her peers, even to kill her off, then the moral weight of this story almost goes without saying, but the most poignant violence arrives to the living, breathing human community that Silkwood captures with such compassion and lack of pretense. If anyone, a whistle-blower or an artist, is out to save lives, then one might as well save the kinds of lives we actually lead, rather than the kinds we imagine or deify in reductive, editorializing movies. At almost every turn, Silkwood reminds us of the difference.

The actors respond brilliantly to the script's demand for real life instead of streamlined portraiture. Meryl Streep about-faces from the self-consciously romantic enigmas of The French Lieutenant's Woman and Sophie's Choice with her most feet-on-the-ground characterization since The Deer Hunter and The Seduction of Joe Tynan. Karen is probably the most suggestive, complex portrayal of Streep's early career: she is capricious, observant, good-humored, diligent, ostentatious, self-deluding, sex-minded, possessed of limited experience but lucid imagination, and painfully sensitive to her own political awakening, almost to the point of feeling intimidated and terrorized by her own discoveries. Kurt Russell and Cher have smaller parts but they invest them with an equally rounded humanity, and the whole movie is chock-full of expert character actors giving the kinds of performances that actors give when a legendary director and a peerless star coax them into their own highest potentials. For Nichols' part, Silkwood files a strong claim as his best movie, or at least his most cinematically dexterous. Working beautifully with cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek (the regular secret weapon of Miloš Forman), Nichols alternates his scenes between deceptively long takes with an extensive depth-of-field and the sort of smudgy, shallow shots that harvest a frightening, almost genre-coded claustrophobia. Even from a formal standpoint, then, Silkwood oscillates between the dangers of the unknown and the epiphanic allure of suddenly, unexpectedly seeing quite a bit at once. Patrizia von Brandenstein's design for the house shared by Karen, Drew, and Dolly is so eloquent and caste-appropriate that we can't fail to feel how cramped and worn-down it is, and yet, over and over, Nichols stages scenes that scatter his players in different corners and planes of the shot, allowing us to glean a terrifically complicated sense of what is going on at each moment, even as the actors impart a casual, improvisatory flavor to their work. This tactic pays equal dividends in the factory: watch the early, extended shot in the women's locker room as Karen, in the immediate foreground, converses a little patronizingly with her elderly, garrulous colleague Thelma (Sudie Bond), how she absorbs the details of Thelma's life even as the blocking of the scene and Streep's restive gestures express an indifference to this woman that she'll quickly come to regret—and then look again at how Cher's Dolly is following every drop of this conversation, from so far in the background that you may not even notice her, and betraying her veiled interests in these women and what they are saying at very particular, evocative points in the scene.

Silkwood only puts a few steps wrong in its careful tracking of character, its ambitious balancing of the intimate with the political, and its refusal to demand moral perfection from a woman whom it nonetheless recommends as a legitimate heroine. Sometimes Nichols seems a bit skittish about details that are obviously intended to bar Karen from outright saintliness: Streep pops lots of pills in this movie without Silkwood ever coming out and facing the question of her rumored fondness for drugs and alcohol, a crucial and controversial factor in the hazy debates surrounding her death. The movie also hedges the details of Karen's affair with Paul Stone (Ron Silver), a higher-up in the chain of Karen's union who is the central engine behind whatever decisive exposés Karen was planning at the moment she died. I'd also venture that we hear Streep's beatific rendition of "Amazing Grace" a time or two too often. If these scenes and motifs seem oddly tentative or self-protective, they are a testament to the complexity and daring of the rest of the film, which steadfastly refuses to believe it is diminishing Karen's legacy by scouting out her living room as well as her workplace, or by leavening her tragedy with layers of humor and eroticism, or by framing what might seem like the insane decision to work in a nuclear plant by reminding us at every point how poor and comparatively option-less these workers really are. Silkwood may not be an outright jeremiad or a formal tour-de-force like The China Syndrome, but its perspective on social problems, even social crises, emanates from a powerfully humane origin: permissive and even a little enamored of human failings and contradictions, but serious about the fatal line between big and little hypocrisies, between people who waffle in their day-to-day principles and cynical institutions that seem to hold none of those principles. The last shot of Silkwood is a close-up of the real Karen's gravestone, and because the whole film has been so textured and astute in considering her life, this final wedding of Nichols' vision to Karen's own life—the stone is deeply personal, but sphinxlike in keeping her secrets—feels inevitable, and well earned. Grade: A–

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Director: Mike Nichols
Best Actress: Meryl Streep
Best Supporting Actress: Cher
Best Original Screenplay: Nora Ephron & Alice Arlen
Best Film Editing: Sam O'Steen

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Mike Nichols
Best Actress (Drama): Meryl Streep
Best Supporting Actress: Cher
Best Supporting Actor: Kurt Russell

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