Tuesday 20 February 2007

Silkwood (1983)

Here's an interesting mix of good and bad, and entirely not in the ways I expected. The good is the acting, especially by Meryl Streep. She plays Karen Silkwood, a menial worker at a nuclear plant, who spends her time blending plutonium and uranium into fuel pellets within protective tanks behind protective gloves and protective suits. She seems to treat it all as a social thing, the way I remember data processing, where most of the people who did it were married women earning second incomes. They turned up to get out of the house and socialise with people, and if it earned a little bit of money then all to the good. It certainly wasn't a vocation for them and it obviously isn't for Karen Silkwood.

Not knowing much about the subject matter, I always thought Silkwood was some heroic activist who paid a huge price for doing the right thing. The longer this film ran on the less I realised that was true. She's a bored and not very nice woman who doesn't seem to have much of a clue about anything. Early on she goes to visit her children, at which point we realise that she's such a great mother that the father has custody. When she gets back to the plant her colleagues tell her about a contamination leak that closed down the plant for the weekend and it's obvious that they all believe that she did it in order to get the weekend off. She raves about colleagues getting cancer yet we hardly see her without a cigarette in her mouth, even while getting changed or eating lunch at work. She can't even quit when going to sleep.

Streep is superb, as always. I've seen her play a very wide range of characters over the years and she's never been less than excellent, regardless what sort of part she has. She's excellent here, even though I really don't care for the character, and she's ably assisted by young looking boyfriend Kurt Russell (though still after Escape from New York and The Thing) and roommate and wannabe girlfriend Cher who really doesn't get much to do here, not even sing as all the vocals are done by Meryl Streep. Cher is fine but I don't get her Oscar nomination at all, or any of the others, such as Mike Nichols for Best Director and the script by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen.

On the bad side, the film is really boring. There's slow and subtle, gradually building into something of serious substance, and there's just plain boring. If all this was shown to help build our sympathies for Karen Silkwood as a character, it didn't work on me. It's pretty obvious that this plant was criminally lax on a number of fronts, but I don't get these people's thinking. Silkwood finally looks everything up in safety documentation that she hadn't previously read and bitches about the bad safety practices, only to bitch even more when they transfer her to another department and she loses out on her overtime. In other words, let me out, but once you've let me out, let me back in again.

She ends up working to keep a union, sleeping around on her boyfriend with a union rep in Washington DC, who's so concerned about the possibility of deliberately defective fuel rods that he suggests they can use the proof to renegotiate contracts. They don't care about anyone or anything any more than the operators of the nuclear plant. And of course, while they rant about how they disagree with government designated safe levels of plutonium exposure, and how it causes cancer, Karen is chain smoking through the whole thing. I'm sorry, but none of this makes sense to me. This film is nothing more than a bunch of highly dubious characters bitching and moaning about another bunch of dubious characters, led by a drug addicted, chain smoking serial philanderer who cares more about her overtime than her safety, all done in a slow and tedious manner. Even Fred Ward and Bruce McGill can't save it and that's sad.

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