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

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

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…

You must find the keys for me!

Doctor Who The Keys of Marinus
Most of the criticisms levelled at The Keys of Marinus over the past 50 years have been fair play, and yet it’s a story I return to as one of the more effortlessly watchable of the Hartnell era. Consequently, the one complaint I can’t really countenance is that it’s boring. While many a foray during this fledgling period drags its heels, even ones of undeniable quality in other areas, Marinus’ shifting soils and weekly adventures-in-miniature sustain interest, however inelegant the actual construction of those narratives may be. The quest premise also makes it a winner; it’s a format I have little resistance to, even when manifested, as here, in an often overtly budget-stricken manner.

Doctor Who has dabbled with the search structure elsewhere, most notably across The Key to Time season, and ultimately Marinus’ mission is even more of a MacGuffin than in that sextology, a means to string together what would otherwise be vignettes to little overall coherence…

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…

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

There are times when I miss the darkness. It is hard to live always in the light.

Blake's 7 4.12: Warlord

The penultimate episode, and Chris Boucher seems to have suddenly remembered that the original premise for the series was a crew of rebels fighting against a totalitarian regime. The detour from this, or at least the haphazard servicing of it, during seasons Three and Four has brought many of my favourite moments in the series. So it comes as a bit of a jolt to suddenly find Avon making Blake-like advances towards the leaders of planets to unite in opposition against the Federation. 

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.