Skip to main content

You think I contaminated myself, you think I did that?


Silkwood
(1983)

Mike Nichol’s film about union activist Karen Silkwood, who died under suspicious circumstances in a car accident in 1974, remains a powerful piece of work; even more so in the wake of Fukushima. If we transpose the microcosm of employees of a nuclear plant, who would rather look the other way in favour of a pay cheque, to the macrocosm of a world dependent on an energy source that could spell our destruction (just don’t think about it and, if you do, be reassured by the pronouncements of “experts” on how safe it all is; and if that doesn’t persuade you be under no illusion that we need this power now, future generations be damned!) it is just as relevant.

Structured as a domestic drama, in which the three principals work at a plant producing plutonium fuel rods, Silkwood’s concerns over safety only gradually assume centre stage; it is a full 40 minutes before she is involved in a contamination incident herself. Nevertheless, in Nora Ephron’s script (her debut, with Alice Arlen, and fairly atypical of subsequent romcom typecasting) the relationships are always in focus. As a result, while the sense of fear (and horror) is at times palpable, Silkwood arguably does not have the lingering power of other films with similar thematic content. As a relationship drama, however, it is fully rounded and satisfyingly nuanced.

Silkwood came out at a time of an emerging subgenre of films concerning the dangers of the nuclear age, from TV dramas The Day After, Threads and Edge of Darkness to more mainstream cinema fare such as War Games. The instigator for this interest was, in part, the success of The China Syndrome in 1979, which coincided with the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. Jane Fonda, the star of that film, owned the rights to Karen Silkwood’s story at one point.

Nichols had not directed a feature in eight years when he attached himself to Silkwood. Nichols tends to be one of those unobtrusive filmmakers who makes or breaks based on the quality of the script. When the technique shows it often wasn’t a good idea; who can forget Jack Nicholson leaping about in Wolf (amusingly parodied in Seinfeld)? He’s something of a journeyman too, working repeatedly with actors or writers but hopping genre and tone. At it’s core Silkwood is one of his most earnest films, with a passionate central character, but it is neither preachy nor a polemic.

In interviews, star Meryl Streep referred to Nichols view that the film was about being asleep and waking up. Consquently, this theme is developed in a leisurely manner during the opening sections of the film. The job at the plant is mundane; these are blue-collar workers just grateful that there is employment in their town. Consequently, Silkwood’s struggle is as much with those who wish to remain asleep as the recklessness of the Kerr-McGee (who owned the site; it was shut down in the year following Silkwood’s death). There’s casualness to the knowledge of what radiation poisoning might do, but it remains abstract; at arm’s length. But a toxic lifestyle of self-denial permeates their lives. The central characters smoke incessantly, Silkwood is frequently seen chain-smoking; it’s a mundane that is even used for ironic comment at one point.

In the film, it is the plight of an older worker at the plant who becomes contaminated that ignites Karen’s activism. Nichols innately understands just how to use the warning alarm. After the first time, it is Karen who is on the receiving end of the siren and it is a chilling effect, both of recognition of what it means but also on a primal level. The sound is as terrifying as anything in any horror movie.

But it’s the relationships that make the film work. That’s as much down to Ephron (who, even at her most formulaic, was a go-to for characterisation) as the actors. The cast assembled by Nichols is not just impressive by dint of being a littering of great performers. It stands out for the chemistry between them. Streep is phenomenal. I’ve ragged on her for the mannered, “performance” of Sophie’s Choice the previous year; it’s her portrayal of Karen Silkwood that should have bagged her the Oscar. The character is a mass of contradictions and flaws, and Streep nails them at every turn. Most of all, she makes her a warm and humorous person (the passion Streep can do in her sleep, but she isn’t the cuddliest of actresses) in spite of her failings.

None of this would work if her the other two parts of the not-quite ménage-a-trois weren’t giving it their all. Kurt Russell never required any selling to me as a great actor, but it’s probably fair to say he hadn’t proved himself in straight dramas. He’d recently evolved from Disney child star to John Carpenter’s actor of choice. And, if we were honest, really juicy dramatic roles (as opposed to solid leading man ones) wouldn’t be that numerous subsequently. He’s so natural as Drew Stephens, Silkwood’s boyfriend, and so unselfish in a role that is all about texture and shade (you can see his point-of-view, and he loves Karen, but he’s not one to get behind her), you end up thinking what a shame it was that he had to be mostly an action star. Cher, meanwhile, is a pre-nose job revelation as the lesbian housemate (Dolly Pelliker) with a thing for Karen. It might just be her best performance, as you can’t see the glam Cher of later roles in Dolly.

Then take a glance at the rest of the cast; numerous great players, some of whom barely get a line (M Emmet Walsh); Ron Silver, Fred Ward (on a bit of a supporting player roll at that point), Craig T Nelson, Bruce McGill, Will Patton, David Strathairn.

Some have criticised the film for its lack of fidelity to the actual story (“Fairly accurate” is the damning with faint praise summary on imdb), but there are other mediums to look to if you want just that facts. And there are other movies to go to if you want a more focused dissection of the nuclear industry. It’s possibly a legitimate complaint that not enough of the latter prevents the film from being an out-and-out classic; certainly, I felt a little more righteous indignation wouldn’t have gone amiss. But Silkwood succeeds, as Nichols hoped it would, by showing one individual’s kernel of awareness growing into a cri de coeur. And telling an affecting character drama at the same time. 

****



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up f…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

You're going to need a nickname, cos I ain't saying that every time.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
(SPOILERS) I had a mercifully good time with Solo: A Star Wars Story, having previously gone from considering it a straight-up terrible idea when first announced, to cautious optimism with the signing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, to abject pessimism with their replacement by little Ronnie Howard, to cautious optimism again with the advent of various trailers and clips. I have numerous caveats, but then that's been par for the course with the series ever since Return of the Jedi, whichever side of good or bad the individual entries end up falling. The biggest barrier to enjoyment, judging by others’ responses, seems to be the central casting of Aiden Ehrenreich; I actually thought he was really good, so the battle for my allegiance was half won right there. No, he isn't Harrison Ford, but he succeeds admirably in making Han Solo a likeable, brash, smug wannabe scoundrel. Less so at being scruffy looking, but you can’t have everything.

It looks as i…

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…