Review of Mike Nichols’ 1983 film Silkwood, Starring 3-time Oscar Winner Meryl Streep

Cover of "Silkwood"

Cover of Silkwood

Summary: Silkwood Was A Martryr Who Died For A Greater Cause. The Film Is Less Bothered About The Cause Though, Highlighting More About Everything Karen Lost. There’s Little To Cheer.

Silkwood is one of those movies that you simply should not watch at midnight. Unfortunately, my cable television placed the movie at the 12:30 am slot and on top of it kept no intermissions, not even one during the movie. So I had to stay awake late at night and watch this in the living area, dimming the lights around me and lowering the T.V.’s audibility so that my family would not get disturbed by the warning alarm sounds heard often in the film. Without any intermissions, I was a little lost during the movie because keeping an intermission during films does indeed have a powerful impact if placed at the right point – it increases the audience’s anticipation and also gives them a break to take in all the details.

Silkwood kept chugging on and on in scenes with little dramatic weight (its documentary approach is quite like the lead actress Meryl Streep‘s other film A Cry in The Dark) or any significant narrative development to hold us in. I quite felt like the movie chose the wrong person to tell its story, and it could’ve been told better had Karen Silkwood been a supporting character in a film that rather emphasized on the investigation of Kerr-McGee plant and the lawsuit in the aftermath of Silkwood’s untimely demise. Unlike Erin Brockovich, Silkwood was not able to directly resolve the issue of health and safety of workers, and though she did play a major role in initiating the whole move, her accident martyrs her for a greater cause. The movie isn’t able to deliver her enough justice for her efforts and death, with its epilogue only mentioning that the ‘plant closed down a year later’ – too grim and defeated to inspire.

Karen Silkwood was a courageous small-town gal who took on the Oklahoma nuclear plant where she worked after finding out that it conducted unethical practices without considering workers’ safety. From being one of the bubbliest and most beloved persons among her colleagues and supervisors, Karen eventually lost almost everyone’s support after helping the union in digging out such malpractices happening at the workplace. Her private life too faced its share of difficulties on top of the mess she was already in even before the incident – apart from losing custody of her three kids, Silkwood’s relationship with her boyfriend Drew also suffered when he cautioned her of ‘going too far’ with the case. She didn’t just have to win her colleagues’ support but also prove to the union that she was a smart woman with a sharp mind.

In one of the film’s best acted scenes, Meryl as Karen is discussing recommendations and proposals for the nuclear plant with the senior union members. At first, her suggestions are trivial and her seniors condescendingly put down her ideas and hurriedly begin to leave. It is then that Karen leaves the room and catches them in the corridor where she whispers what she had witnessed at the plant. It is only then that the union takes her seriously. Streep’s excellence is evident during close-ups or mid-shots in this movie’s case (the film rarely has close- ups), but her screen charisma tends to disappear in her attempt to replicate human-like performances. And this becomes a problem whenever the camera goes away from her, especially here in Silkwood where the cinematography is quite conventional like those old films where the cameras moved less and the actors went back and forth. She’s managed to rectify this problem though especially in her recent ventures where her charisma makes for half the performance. Here we manage to catch less than half of whatever she is doing because of the distance the camera maintains.

It’s not just Streep but also actors Cher, Kurt and director Mike Nichols who act and direct respectively in a similar manner. Now I get it they wanted to depict a dull small-town in Oklahoma with as much truism as possible. Cher (playing Karen’s lesbian friend Dolly) wears the most unimposing crumpled and faded jerseys and pants while Russell (playing Karen’s boyfriend Drew) is equally untidy and moves around the house shirtless and in cheap blue jeans (though their performances are great). They do everything in their own lazy pace and Cher’s Dolly is found half the time either in bed or on the couch. On top of this Nichols makes it even more evident that nothing much happens in ‘small town Okie’ by placing his camera at a distance. Only a few times do we get shot/reverse shots between the actors and once or twice we see the camera do an effect other than cutting (a few dissolves and an expected fadeout after the crucial scene). Even the upbeat background music at the beginning slowly turns into bleak mournful tunes as the film progresses. It is only the sound of the warning alarm bells that occasionally appear to raise some momentum.

There is neither enough follow-up of Silkwood’s investigation itself, except for some extended scenes of Karen surreptitiously (hence very slowly) hunting for some ‘confidential information’. I could get up in between, bring some chocolates from the fridge in the kitchen and find myself watching her do the same action. The movie ‘Silkwood’ therefore becomes ‘ambitionless’ and although I do understand it has deliberately downplayed its ‘own cinematic ambition’ just to honor the woman’s life, the movie as a result also becomes ‘one of those inspirational films that come, snag some awards and are soon forgotten’. Or in this film’s case, used as a failed ‘boob-gag’ in Seth MacFarlane‘s unimpressive Oscar show.

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4 thoughts on “Review of Mike Nichols’ 1983 film Silkwood, Starring 3-time Oscar Winner Meryl Streep

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  2. Pingback: The Complete Review of 2003 TV Movie ‘Angels In America’ The Golden Globe And Emmy Award Winning Mike Nichols Magnum Opus Starring Oscar Winners Al Pacino, Emma Thompson, Meryl Streep | Film Louvre
  3. Pingback: A Shorter Review of ‘Angels In America’ A Golden Globe And Emmy Winning TV Movie Starring Oscar Winners Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Emma Thompson | Film Louvre
  4. Pingback: The Complete Review of 2003 TV Movie ‘Angels In America’ The Golden Globe And Emmy Award Winning Mike Nichols Magnum Opus Starring Oscar Winners Al Pacino, Emma Thompson, Meryl Streep | Film Louvre

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