30 Years ago today: Silkwood – Mike Nichols and the power of the nuclear activist. (Film Review)
Union films weren’t unheard of back in December 1983, but activist films with a female lead speaking out against nuclear fuel production workplace safety was, and in many ways Silkwood was ahead of its time given its central premise is centred around potential environmental crime; but back in the day of Karen Silkwood, it was ‘only’ workplace safety that the employees understood. Mike Nichols had already made Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf, The Graduate and Catch-22 (among other notable works) but Silkwood is his first truly serious film, and it was the absolute first screenwriting gig for super writer Nora Ephron, who wrote the screenplay with Alice Arlen and went on to pen great film scripts like When Harry Met Sally, Heartburn, Sleepless in Seattle, and the oddly subversive You’ve got Mail. Silkwood was one of those essential academy award padding films that is well made but unlikely to win; by the time Silkwood came out, Nichols already had a gong for best direction of The Graduate and Meryl Streep, who was thirty-four at the time, had already been nominated for four acting academy awards and won best actress for Sophies Choice and best supporting actress for Kramer v’s Kramer. The single win came for Cher as best supporting actress who is so completely different from her public persona in the film, that transformation is confused for talent, despite her being excellent in the role of Dolly (a fabulous name for an ‘out’ lesbian).
But with all this, does Silkwood stand up to the test of time? It’s been thirty years since we saw this film, and in that time we’ve had Erin Brockovitch, Boy’s Don’t Cry and The Constant Gardiner, just to name a few films based on female activism. Silkwood is very much after the fashion of Norma Rae, the very popular film made four years earlier, but it’s significant point of difference is the ambiguity of the story, and rather than embrace this as if it were a challenge, Nichols and Ephron have blurred it by pursuing a moral line they think is probably right. The real story of Karen Silkwood is not that she was poisoned by a giant corporation and murdered on her way to an interview with the New York Times, it is that this is likely to be what happened but it was never proven. The injustice of the Silkwood story is one of the individual speaking out against a corporation, but in the post-socialist world of 1983, we lamented the demise of organised unions, thinking this to be the working man’s saviour, rather than foresaw the corruption of capitalism affecting the worker in such a personal way. Therefore, when presented with a female character of moral ambiguity such as Karen Silkwood the temptation is to martyr her as misunderstood, which regularly comes across as a sideways judgement on her personal ethics. Norma Rae is different – for one she never cheated on her partner, didn’t take drugs, and didn’t have a homosexual best friend.
Karen Silkwood in 2003 is all the more interesting for her moral ambiguity, but Ephron takes no position other than to reveal her as a feisty woman who is completely beaten down by fear. This is impeccably acted by Streep, who carries so much of the film in the way she reveals Silkwood’s vulnerabilities escalating commensurate with her fear. When the disproportionate amounts of plutonium are revealed to be in Silkwood’s system, her morality is used against her, to the point where the company is able to argue (and stood by this appalling claim in real life) that Karen Silkwood consumed plutonium deliberately in order to attack The Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site unjustly, a claim that could only be believed by people who wanted to condemn a fallen woman. Ephron buries this as par for the course in Silkwood’s life, when really it is the throbbing heart of the story, and although it is referenced repeatedly, the allegations are never taken seriously in the film, which is a weakness because we can all read their futility, and highlighting it would havew given the film a timelessness Karen Silkwood deserves. We’re left with a ramshackle affair that sort of peters out, despite the astonishing climax, and no mention is made of the subsequently successful law suits by Silkwood’s family to bring her memory to justice, that ultimately led to the closing down of the site. In this way, the film itself seems to focus too heavily on Karen’s morality, and by daring the audience to accept it, with twenty-twenty hindsight, plays its own part in her condemnation.
Consistently interesting with all these sorts of films, but it’s particularly well done in Silkwood, is the relationship between the female activist and those around her who have to live with the burden of an activist wife and mother. Ephron writes these relationships well, and true to what we know about her in her future projects, is brilliant at portraying the deterioration of connections between people. Ephron writes those ‘glance’ scenes so well, those moments when a touch (as in When Harry Met Sally) or a rumour (as in Heartburn) or a sideways glance from a doctor as in Silkwood can transform a person entirely and for the most part she’s had actors who convey these very subtle moments well. The most interesting aspect (and it really shouldnt be) of Silkwood is the relationship between Karen, Drew and Dolly as the three who crave a life of freedom from judgement but desperately want depth of connection and can’t sustain their utopia when it is challenged. It isn’t the central point of the story of Karen Silkwood, but it is what Nora Ephron does well, and its also comfortable territory for Nichols, and that is probably the single problem with Silkwood as a film: it lacks the vision and courage of Karen Silkwood.