Imagine a movie with Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, and Cher. Imagine it being directed by award-winner Mike Nichols, and being co-written by Nora Ephron of When Harry Met Sally fame. Seems like an instant Hollywood classic, yet Silkwood, which is that film, lounges in the dusty corners of forgotten cinema. Which is a real shame, because Silkwood is that rare big-budget Hollywood film that manages to feel like a low-budget indie with honest, underplayed, character driven drama.
One must give Nichols a lot of that credit- he manages to reign in three huge movie stars, steering them back into being straight-up actors, submerged in their roles. Despite their iconic status, they come off not as their iconic selves but as three humble, working-class Southerners trying to get by while working at the local nuclear power plant. Nichols spends the first part of the film establishing their routine- the comradery among the workers, their domestic life, and all the issues your average American has to struggle with on a daily basis. Streep is Karen Silkwood, a divorced mother of 3 who is estranged from her kids and living with her boyfriend (Russel) and her lesbian roommate (Cher) somewhere in Oklahoma.
Russell, mostly known as an action star, is great here as her no-B.S. boyfriend; Cher comes off as a quirky misfit with low self-esteem, universes away from the “If I Could Turn Back Time” pop star the world would see not that many years later. Even the supporting actors- Craig T. Nelson, Fred Ward, and M. Emmet Walsh do a wonderful job in making this small-town world feel real. Nichols’ bare-bones film style is never flashy, in tune with a script that sticks to the facts of this real-life story, avoiding dramatic embellishment or directorial flourishes.
And what a story, one based on the real life of a blue-collar-bordering-on-White-Trash worker-turned-whistleblower defies plenty of stereotypes and conventions. The China Syndrome covers similar territory, but is flashy and exciting, all about the scandal and how the hero journalist uncovers it. Erin Brockovich was clearly inspired by this film, but that one turns our whistleblower into a romanticized hero who kicks some corporate ass.
By contrast, Karen Silkwood is a nobody- she continually botches both her personal and professional life, right up to the very end. A typical Hollywood version of this story would have her find her calling, whether she triumphs over evil in the end or fails tragically; hero or martyr, Streep would deliver the dramatic goods. But Nichols affords us nothing so digestible; the two of them compassionately craft a sympathetic character without attempting to hide her many flaws. She is what she is, and in the end, she’s not much of anything- but the film is.
2 thoughts on “Silkwood”
My memory is that Silkwood was well reviewed when it came out, but you are right, it did just sort of go down the memory hole. Probably the bummer of an ending had something to do with that. Far more people know Sophie’s Choice as a concept than have actually watched that Streep film, too.
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