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October 20, 2016

Silkwood

by Franz Patrick


Silkwood (1983)
★★★ / ★★★★

Mike Nichols’ “Silkwood” tells the true story of Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep), a woman who worked at the Kerr-McGree nuclear plant in Cimarron, Oklahoma. Eventually becoming very vocal about the company’s unsafe policies, practices, and downright illegal activities, she inevitably becomes the target of not only the higher-ups but also her co-workers who are afraid that if the truth came out, the plant would be forced to shut down, thereby losing their jobs.

I admired the picture’s willingness to abstain from a typical arc involving a whistleblower and what might inevitably happen to her. I had no idea what was going on in the first half—a compliment—because the scenes do not appear to be building up to a climax—at least not in an obvious manner. The screenplay by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen seems to be more concerned about letting the audience into the mindset of a small town and allowing us to get a feel of Karen’s life: how she feels about her job and being miles away from her children, how she relates or is unable to relate to some of her co-workers, the dynamics of her friendship with her lesbian roommate (Cher) and lover (Kurt Russell).

Pay close attention to scenes that show Karen simply being a part of her workplace. While we get to see a good chunk of her personality there, it leaves enough room for us to notice that maybe she is neglecting to take the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of radiation. The cake scene which takes place in a specific work area is telling. So is an early sequence in the lunch or break room where she takes food from other people. How does she know that they are clean?

Having experience working in a lab and dealing with radiation, I tend to notice every bit of detail, from what Karen is touching to what she is doing to protect herself—and others—from the long-term effects of plutonium exposure. And yet at the same time, the film does a good job in allowing us to understand that Karen may not know that she is being careless at times. After all, radiation safety is not instinctual. It involves considering things that are not easily seen. Maybe the workers at the plant are not well-trained.

The pictures offers one of the more chilling endings I have seen in some time. It is horrific and sad, certainly, but I was impressed with its elegance. Emphasis is not on the violence but in the aftermath, the still unresolved questions. It ends with mystery without pretension. Because of this, we think about the character and her mission rather than what has, what has not, or what has possibly happened to her.

Streep is such a consummate performer that watching her in slow motion makes me smile. I loved the scene where Karen must say farewell to her boyfriend temporarily. Karen does not want to let him go and so Streep, standing next to his car (Drew is a car mechanic—the car is an obvious representation of him), allows her hand to slide off the vehicle as it drives away. Choosing to inject such a small moment that may have been easily overlooked and inspiring us to extract significance out of it separates Streep from her fellow performers.

“Silkwood” is for absolutely for those who like to observe without having to be told where to look or what to think. One example is the relationship among Karen, Drew, and Dolly. During the first half, I did not know exactly what to make of what they have. I had my suspicions and so I looked for clues. The answer becomes clear soon enough but the fact that I had to question and revise means the characters are not cardboard cutouts but real people who have real thoughts, pains, and yearnings.

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