Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell and Cher Star in Director Mike Nichols’ True-Life Drama



Meryl Streep is Karen Silkwood, a simple Oklahoma woman who finds herself in a lot of trouble.

Following eight years of not having directed a narrative feature film, this 1983 Oscar contender finds director Mike Nichols back in his comfort zone of telling compelling stories about nobodies. With his major comedy legacy of Nichols & May decades behind him, he’d long since been at home in the realm of the ultra-serious. Silkwood is a prime example of such fare, though it should be clarified that the film is far from dour or altogether humorless. Written for the screen by Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle) and Alice Arlen, the film successfully straddles a line between uncomfortable and homey – much like the daily existence of its characters, one would imagine.

Silkwood proves to be a stealthy piece of work. Longer than two hours, the movie plays as a chronicle of a working class poor woman who’s stuck in a rut. The bland, procedural repetition of her job is established early and proceeds throughout the film. Silkwood is one of many tasked with handling radioactive material in a local plant. Cumbersome hazmat suits, spending hours her hands in gloves that are built into a mechanical contraption, the constant risk of needing her surface layer of skin harshly scrubbed off should it accidentally become radioactive, questionable support from her labor union… It’s a workaday existence plagued with dire consequences should something go wrong. But for the most part, it’s a living.

Her hair an unkempt brunette and her clothes proclaiming the softer side of Sears, it’s practically unthinkable that this is the same woman behind Lady Thatcher in The Iron Lady or the lead in Mamma Mia.

Silkwood bears the kind of rural decaying vibe that understands how someone traipsing through your just-swept-up pile on the kitchen floor can confound the bigger irritations of life. When that moment happens to Steep’s character, Nichols plays it as just another element in a wide shot with several other things going on. Like the people depicted, the moment is super easy to miss, and maybe a bit too recognizable for comfort.

Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood in SILKWOOD.

The movie may not initially register as being about anything beyond its central focus of Silkwood’s mounting work troubles, and the revelations and questions of just how ethically whacked the plant is. But by the time it’s over, we understand the ins and outs of the place, its alarm-triggering concerns, and the painful and humiliating consequences of getting flagged for radioactivity. We know that Silkwood’s coworker (Craig T. Nelson) is doctoring photo negatives to eliminate evidences of safety breaches. Yet, on the whole, much of the film is about reconciling the pressures of living martyrdom in a world that was all too real for viewers in 1983.

Streep as Silkwood is, unsurprisingly, a chameleon-like performance in so much as, from the start, the actress simply is unrecognizable as anything other than the character. Her hair an unkempt brunette and her clothes proclaiming the softer side of Sears, it’s practically unthinkable that this is the same woman behind Lady Thatcher in The Iron Lady or the lead in Mamma Mia. Streep’s Silkwood is a stretched-thin mother who internalizes her frustrations and her decision making, preferring to express herself on the fly, with perhaps a weepy meltdown, a questionable quip, or a super-quick impish flash. Midway through the film, Silkwood’s modus operandi abruptly but unspokenly shifts gears. Very few actresses could sell this as well as Streep.

Those closet to Silkwood are tragically not her kids, who are mainly off living with their father, but her live-in coworkers, the southern-fried loverboy, Drew (National Treasure Kurt Russell, young and often shirtless here) and lesbian roommate Dolly (Cher, getting down with the common people). Both are good in their aimless supporting roles, though it’s Nelson as the paranoid and awkward photo lab coworker who strikes a more memorable chord.

National Treasure Kurt Russell in SILKWOOD.

The A/V quality of Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ Blu-Ray release of Silkwood looks and sounds entirely passable, with the exception of one very quick moment of odd visual distortion. On the whole, if one were in the market to own a physical copy of this film, this is the version to get. Bonus features include a terrific recent interview with the film’s producer, Michael Hausman, as well as several vintage TV spots and the original theatrical trailer.

For those unfamiliar with the tragic true-life tale of Ms. Silkwood, the final moments of Nichols’ film are likely to play as abrupt, teetering on arbitrary. Upon further contemplation, however, one realizes that all the while, the narrative has been slowly cultivating an atmosphere of dread, perhaps even pending doom.

Cher in SILKWOOD.dramadrama

Only the grave musical stings in the score by the great Georges Delerue telegraph how sinister things might just be below the surface. Honestly, despite the legacy and reputation of the composer, Mr. Delerue’s score is the single most pronounced misfire of this unlikely project. The few darkly ominous moments of the story that are punctuated with a sudden BHUUUUUMMM! end up playing as undercut, shoved into the realm of inappropriate irony. It feels particularly wrong to call a Delerue score “tone deaf”, but per the contemporary definition of the term, that’s what it is.

Nichols wisely doesn’t try to tell us why Silkwood’s fate is what it is. The unspoken implications that mount up throughout are condemnation enough. The ending is an abrupt curveball, to be sure. It is also not unrealistic… Realism, and the human truths therein, being what the film is really interested in uncovering. Days after watching it, one realizes that it in fact does so.