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…

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.

Out of Africa (1985)
I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

If you could just tell me what those eyes have seen.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Rodriguez’ film of James Cameron’s at-one-stage-planned film of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm on the one hand doesn’t feel overly like a Rodriguez film, in that it’s quite polished, so certainly not of the sort he’s been making of late – definitely a plus – but on the other, it doesn’t feel particularly like a Jimbo flick either. What it does well, it mostly does very well – the action, despite being as thoroughly steeped in CGI as Avatar – but many of its other elements, from plotting to character to romance, are patchy or generic at best. Despite that, there’s something likeable about the whole ludicrously expensive enterprise that is Alita: Battle Angel, a willingness to be its own kind of distinctive misfit misfire.

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

Even after a stake was driven through its heart, there’s still interest.

Prediction 2019 Oscars
Shockingly, as in I’m usually much further behind, I’ve missed out on only one of this year’s Best Picture nominees– Vice isn’t yet my vice, it seems – in what is being suggested, with some justification, as a difficult year to call. That might make for must-see appeal, if anyone actually cared about the movies jostling for pole position. If it were between Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody (if they were even sufficiently up to snuff to deserve a nod in the first place), there might be a strange fascination, but Joe Public don’t care about Roma, underlined by it being on Netflix and stillconspicuously avoided by subscribers (if it were otherwise, they’d be crowing about viewing figures; it’s no Bird Box, that’s for sure).

You use a scalpel. I prefer a hammer.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)
(SPOILERS) The latest instalment of the impossibly consistent in quality Mission: Impossible franchise has been hailed as the best yet, and with but a single dud among the sextet that’s a considerable accolade. I’m not sure it's entirely deserved – there’s a particular repeated thematic blunder designed to add some weight in a "hero's validation" sense that not only falls flat, but also actively detracts from the whole – but as a piece of action filmmaking, returning director Christopher McQuarrie has done it again. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is an incredible accomplishment, the best of its ilk this side of Mad Max: Fury Road.