Lone Star Cinema: Silkwood


Meryl Streep in Silkwood (with a blurry young David Strathairn in the background)

When writer/director Nora Ephron died months ago, I was surprised to see Silkwood mentioned along the many other credits in her obits. Little did I know Ephron co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for this 1983 drama alongside Alice Arlen.  Then I found out via IMDb searching that the movie was filmed in Texas! Obviously, I had to move it up my Netflix queue.

Silkwood is based on the true story of the woman of the same name, Karen Silkwood, who was born in Longview and spent some time in Beaumont. When we meet her in the film, however, she's a gal in her mid-twenties, played by Meryl Streep, working at a nuclear facility in small-town Oklahoma. Karen lives with boyfriend Drew (Kurt Russell) and best friend Dolly (Cher), who both work in the plant as well.

There are many other recognizable faces in this movie. David Strathairn and Fred Ward (who I know best from my childhood favorite Big Business) play co-workers in Silkwood's division, Craig T. Nelson appears as a smarmy guy at the plant, and I even spied Bill Cobbs (I'll Fly Away, Go On) in a lunchroom scene.

As directed by Mike Nichols, Silkwood focuses on Karen Silkwood's whistleblowing activism in the nuclear plant and the resulting effects on her life. After noticing some questionable practices, she gradually becomes involved in the union and turns almost abrasive towards others in her resolve to improve and report current conditions there. The tale rolls out slowly like molasses, but the pace works for this picture.

Streep's Silkwood is flawed and multi-faceted: a young divorcee who almost forgets to ask for the weekend off to visit her kids in south Texas, someone who creates her own sort of family amongst her friends and team of co-workers, a woman confronting aggressive male management types.  And this is all before she has to face possible radiation poisoning! The film, as well as Streep's performance, tends toward subtleness -- well, until the somewhat abrupt ending.

The lighting and production design seem worthy of note. The production team created a believably '70s-era plant in all its unsafe splendor. The lighting truly enforces the underlying emotion of certain nighttime scenes -- Karen in her car or talking to Dolly or Drew on the porch.

Silkwood is almost like an angry (angrier?) blend of The China Syndrome and Norma Rae. Not only does the film depict dangerous conditions at a company which cuts corners in its plutonium production, but it focuses on a woman who comes to realize a kind of empowerment through the union. I may have felt that it kept me, as a viewer, at a sort of distance (except for some sweet select scenes), but I was still angered at the crap this woman had to put up with.

Texas connections: Although based in Oklahoma, Silkwood was filmed in Dallas, Irving, Texas City, Tom Bean and Howe (plus Albuquerque, NM).  Karen Silkwood, who the film is based on, was from Texas.

[Still via Radio Free Emily]