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.