Silkwood (1983)

*. It’s hard not to get sucked into the hybrid game trying to classify this one. As in “this movie is a combination of movie x and movie y.” So, yes, my first thought was that I was watching a combination of The China Syndrome and Norma Rae (both 1979). This immediately led me to wonder how many people today watch any of these movies. How many young people will have even heard of them? And yet at the time they were all celebrated, award-winning films on controversial political subjects.
*. Well, it may be that nothing dates as much as the political. “Of course,” David Thomson says of Silkwood, “it’s a subject that we all prefer to forget.” Or, I would say, that we would prefer not to look at or into too closely in the first place. I think we’re all aware of the fact that a lot of the work people do is not only hard and poorly paid but unsafe and degrading. We all know that many of the comforts and conveniences of contemporary life have a dark side, but we prefer not to think about where the meat on our plate comes from, where our waste goes, who’s mining our data online, or just how little the big corporations that rule the world care about our well being.

*. The movie poster (and DVD box cover) is something else that has dated. The trio of leads (Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, and Cher) look like the group from a 1980s romcom. But this is something else that led me on to further thoughts. Why is this movie so centred on these three characters and their cozy household and not just on Karen Silkwood? I couldn’t even remember the names of the other two characters five minutes after the movie was over (he’s Kurt Russell is Drew and Cher is Dolly). I was trying to remember the names while reading Roger Ebert’s review and found, to my slight chagrin, that he doesn’t name them either but just names Russell and Cher. I wonder if he forgot their names too. There may be something significant in that.
*. Do they really add that much to the film? Not in the eyes of many reviewers. Thomson writes them off quickly: “Cher was better than anyone expected, and Russell does nothing to get in the way.” Pauline Kael was even more withering: “Kurt Russell . . . is used mostly for his bare chest and his dimples.” No disagreement here. He’s cute, and he does spend a lot of time with this shirt off. Meanwhile, “Cher . . . has a lovely, dark-lady presence, but she’s used as a lesbian Mona Lisa, all faraway smiles and shrugs. It’s a wan, weak role.” Note how, in the scene when they’re all on the airplane together, she’s kept out of focus even in the foreground, when it would be interesting to see her face so we can judge what she may be thinking or hiding from the others.

*. So why are they there? A buff good ol’ boy who doesn’t get in the way and a dark lady in a wan, weak role? They don’t even have enough presence to act as foils for Karen. Craig T. Nelson has more gravity, projecting a field of dull menace.
*. This leaves us with Streep. The two critics I’ve been quoting — Thomson and Kael — are divided. Thomson describes her portrayal of Silkwood as “a wolflike maverick, sexy, insolent, and rebellious, but casual and lazy.” Kael: “She has no natural vitality; she’s like a replicant — all shtick.”
*. This shouldn’t be surprising. Streep has a reputation for being an actor who divides opinion. Some people just don’t like her (I mean, of course, as an actor). To be honest, I’m not a big fan myself and I’ve tended to like her more in supporting or character roles. In big parts I always feel like I’m watching a programmed star turn. Maybe that’s unfair, but even here I was always conscious of the fact that I was watching Meryl Streep doing an Okie accent. Maybe it’s just the curse of overfamiliarity. I have the same problem with Tom Hanks.
*. I saw Silkwood first sometime in the mid-’80s and I remember it having a much greater impact on me then. Today its message seems muted. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because we’ve all become inured to the existence of such corporate misbehaviour and conspiracies. Maybe it’s because Bridges and Cher seem so laid back (and remember that even Thomson found Streep’s Silkwood “casual and lazy”). And maybe it’s because the fact that Karen is dying of radiation poisoning while she’s chain-smoking and drinking her way to an early grave anyway seemed sadly comic.
*. Worst of all, however, is the ending. Reviewers found it abrupt, which was something forced on the production for legal reasons (they didn’t want to get into a fight over what really happened on the night of Silkwood’s death). Personally, I wish it had been even more abrupt, as the montage that plays to “Amazing Grace” struck me as awkwardly sentimental and cloying. I wonder if that’s how Mike Nichols wanted to end the movie. I have my doubts.
*. I still think it’s a good movie, but like The China Syndrome (another good movie) it just doesn’t seem that essential any more. Maybe it needed to be angrier. Or maybe we’re all too jaded now to relate, or care.

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