Thursday, June 24, 2010

Who Killed Karen Silkwood?

Karen Silkwood worked for Kerr-McGee’s plant in Crescent, Oklahoma, where she was a union member whose job was to investigate health and safety hazards. She found many examples of company malfeasance, including employees who had been contaminated with plutonium, and testified about Kerr-McGee’s alleged negligence before the Atomic Energy Commission.

A few months later, Silkwood was inexplicably contaminated with abnormally high levels of plutonium, which she suspected was planted on her clothing and inside her home by Kerr-McGee. She compiled evidence against her employer, but was killed in a mysterious one-car accident driving home from a union meeting in 1974. The folder containing the evidence, which she had with her when she left the meeting, wasn’t found in the car, and physical evidence indicated she may have been intentionally run off the road.

Meryl Streep, a year after winning the Best Actress Academy Award for SOPHIE’S CHOICE, was nominated for another Oscar for playing Karen in 1983's SILKWOOD. Cher, also an Oscar nominee, portrays Karen’s lesbian friend Dolly Pelliker, and Kurt Russell is Karen’s boyfriend Drew Stephens, both of whom lived with Karen and worked with her at the Kerr-McGee plant.

All are remarkably good, as are the supporting actors, which include Fred Ward, Diana Scarwid, Tess Harper, Craig T. Nelson, Ron Silver, Charles Hallahan, Bruce McGill, M. Emmet Walsh, David Strathairn, and Josef Sommer. The performances aren’t flashy, nor should they be. What director Mike Nichols has accomplished is a realistic slice of blue-collar Americana that also happens to be a thriller pitting Everywoman against The Man.

To call it a thriller may be to promise something different than what SILKWOOD delivers. After all, we know how the movie ends before it’s even started, so the plot isn’t the thing. At times, Nichols doesn’t even seem interested in the plot, as it takes nearly an hour before the thriller elements start cooking.

No, it’s the people that Nichols and his writers, Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen, are telling a story about. The director uses a lot of long takes that let the performers fully inhabit their roles. Some may have a problem with the pacing, but I was totally invested in the story. The more realistic the characters, the harder it hits when their problems occur. When Karen becomes more involved with union business, it affects her relationship with Drew.

The script’s only major flaw is that Karen’s conversion to activist feels too abrupt. I really like the way it portrays Kerr-McGee: not as out-and-out villains, although SILKWOOD leaves little doubt it’s covering up some bad stuff. McGill’s performance as Management is layered in a way that lets you interpret his moral character. Is he a bad guy, a corporate lackey, or just scared of losing his job?

There is a bad scene that undoubtedly didn’t occur in real life where Russell belts someone in the mouth, and the ending lays the schmaltz on rather thick, but otherwise, SILKWOOD is a heckuva picture that was nominated for five Oscars, including Director, Screenplay, and Film Editing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jane Fonda was keenly interested in developing a film about Karen Silkwood but when the project was stalled and THE CHINA SYNDROME became the go-project she shifted her participation to that film.

Doesn't a character in THE CHINA SYNDROME suffer a fate similar to what ultimately befell Karen Silkwood?

I think SILKWOOD was a significant project for Cher. It was one of her first important dramatic roles, picking up an Academy Award nomination in the process and essentially opening the door for the very successful career she had in the 1980s.