Silkwood (1983) starring Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, Cher, Craig T. Nelson, Fred Ward, Ron Silver, Sudie Bond, Bruce McGill, David Strathairn directed by Mike Nichols Movie Review

Silkwood (1983)   4/54/54/54/54/5

Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood in Silkwood (1983)

Full of Reacting

Certain movies which on release were seen as powerful loose their impact over time especially to those who watch them for the first time years after their release. I say that to basically qualify my opinion having watched "Silkwood" for the first time 30 years after its release in 1983 because whilst I found it a well acted drama which spiked my inquisitive mind the actual power of the drama is not as much as I expected.

Now for those who are unaware "Silkwood" is the story of Karen Silkwood who was a chemical technician in a plant which manufactured Plutonium who on tiring of the poor treatment of staff became a union activist and a thorn in the side of the company. It was whilst driving to a meeting with a journalist from the New York Times in November 1974 that she mysteriously died in a car accident, none of the papers that she would be carrying were found when the accident was discovered. Before that whilst working in the plant she had triggered radiation sensors 3 times with high levels of Plutonium also hound at the house where she lived leading her to believe that the company were trying to silence her.

Kurt Russell as Drew Stephens in Silkwood (1983)

Now what is only briefly mentioned in the movie is what happened after her death because the plant was closed down the following year. What is also not mentioned is the long running case which Karen's family brought against the manufacturing plant over the high levels of Plutonium contamination in Karen's system a case which reached Supreme Court in 1979. As I said this movie is fascinating and spikes your interest to know more but also why I say it is a movie which would have been more powerful at the time of release because the name Karen Silkwood would have been more commonly known than it is now.

So what does that mean for "Silkwood" the movie well basically we watch events leading up to Karen's mysterious death starting when she wasn't a union activist and just part of the staff. Now you may say what is so interesting about that, well firstly we become aware of practices within the plant from dodgy goings such as tampering with x-ray negatives to the various practices to do with safety or in some cases lack of it. Most significantly and shockingly we not only see how Karen was accused of a contamination leak as part of a cover up but we also see the humiliating scrubbing down of a member of staff who triggered the radiation sensor, a scene which is horrifying on so many levels as there is not only the humiliation, there is the pain of being scrubbed down with scalding water and the fear of cancer.

But alongside this look at the practices of the plant we also have a character study because we watch as Karen changes from a carefree young woman whose children live with their father to a woman willing to risk her life to expose the plant. You can physically see how Karen changes from having a laugh to someone who having been at the brunt of a company cover-up becomes determined to get justice. We also see how it affects her relationships from a troubled relationship with boyfriend Drew to other members of staff not wanting to associate with her because of her crusade against the company.

It is all of this which now whilst not powerful is still seriously fascinating and engaging. And at the centre of this is an unsurprisingly good performance from Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood and it is her skill as an actress which not only allows us to grow fond of Karen but also understand that she was not perfect. Streep is backed up by a whole host of well known faces such as Cher, Kurt Russell, Bruce McGill and Craig T. Nelson to name but a few.

What also helps make "Silkwood" so engaging is Mike Nichols direction because this is not a movie which is inundated with edits in fact many a scene featuring numerous characters is completed with one camera and one take. It makes it flow brilliantly and allows you to listen to what is being said and the way actors react to each other without chopping and changing. And it is in the small reactions, the little moments of detail which make you understand the characters such as when Drew sees a picture of Karen arm in arm with a Union rep whilst in Washington D.C., just his look and his moving away of an arm says so much not only about what that means to their relationship but also the fact that Karen had been unfaithful and he knew it.

What this all boils down to is that "Silkwood" is still a very good movie, an engaging drama which spikes your mind to find out more whilst delighting with a director willing to let the actors and script do the work rather than over editing things. I would guess that it was a much more powerful story on its release but it is still enthralling and worth a watch.