Whither Karen Silkwood?

Posted by julian On 4:45 PM
Tim here again-

"On November 13, 1974, Karen Silkwood, an employee of a nuclear facility, left to meet with a reporter from the New York Times. She never got there."

And 34 years later, we still don't know exactly what happened to her, though anyone who has seen 1983's Silkwood probably has their suspicions. After all, the film brings the woman back to life in the form of Meryl Streep, at her most lifeforce-tastic, while depicting the manager whose lives she was making so difficult as a pasty, puffy, shifty sort of fellow, the kind who looks like he's constantly about to break into sweat. We don't have the slightest difficulty believing that he and his cronies are just the kind of people to take out a hit on a troublesome young activist, especially since Silkwood is always so engaging and easy to like, and darn it, just plain good, despite some troubling details about her personal life that keep creeping in, adding just enough ambiguity that we can't be absolutely sure that she wasn't maybe at fault for her supposed single-vehicle car crash.

I assume that everybody visiting this site knows why they, at the very least, ought to have seen Silkwood by now (I just finally did *cough* thismorning): Streep in one of the great performances of her early career (it netted her Oscar nomination #5), Cher's breakthrough as a "serious" actress, Kurt Russell's most nuanced dramatic performance ever. Certainly, the combined talents of those three actors, feeding off of each other and giving back so much intimacy, each member of the triangle driving the others to reach their peak, is enough to make Silkwood an excellent human-sized story; personal and observant in a way to make it far more than what the concept threatens to make it, another routine "social activist" picture in the Norma Rae mold.

Less obviously, but just as importantly, the film relies heavily on the careful handling by director Mike Nichols of Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen's fine script: Nichols was on his very best behavior here, opening up the characters through unstressed details and very delicate use of the camera frame to suggest the ongoing shift between the main characters, and their environment.

And it's that ending where Nichols does some of the best work of the film- nay, of his career. With the script rightfully refusing to conjecture what happened that night, Nichols finds an uncanny way to clearly indicate what he wants us to think, while steadfastly maintaining ambiguity. The tension-raising long shot of a car following Karen on a lonely road, which in one steady take shows the lights of that car slowly appear and then draw painfully near, suggests a lot, but it shows absolutely nothing, other than Karen's panic and paranoia. Or the quick insert of Cher's Dolly, Karen's best friend and possible betrayer (foreshadowed in another directorial coup on an airplane), silently crying: it tells the viewer nothing, but creates a feeling of intense foreboding.

Does Silkwood assume, for the sake of drama, that its heroine was murdered? Absolutely, and yet there's not a frame of the film that I can use to prove it. It's that same haunting ambiguity that made the circumstances of Karen Silkwood's death so compelling in the first place; and the filmmakers' ability to honor both her memory and the known facts at the same time is one of the surest reasons that this movie is one of the great true-story thrillers of its decade.

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