'Silkwood': THR's 1983 Review

Silkwood 1983 Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Photofest

Silkwood 1983 Still - H 2014

"Once again, Nichols justifies his past plaudits for bringing the best out of his players"

On Nov. 17, 1983, The Hollywood Reporter appraised Silkwood, a drama that paired director Mike Nichols with the talents of Meryl Streep and Nora Ephron. The film garnered five Academy Award nominations, including nods for directing and writing as well as for performances by Streep and Cher. Read the original review below.

"You look like a stand-up girl," a national union official says to Karen Silkwood. Indeed, the spunky Silkwood had the energy and the conscience to stand up to her powerful employer, Kerr-McGee, not only for her herself but for her fellow employees as well. Kerr-McGee, there was reason to believe, was knowingly endangering the lives of its workers at its Oklahoma nuclear supply plant through insufficient safety standards in its manufacture of nuclear fuel rods. Based on the true story of Karen Silkwood, who died in an auto accident in 1974 just as she was beginning to bring national attention to the Kerr-McGee plant, this ABC Motion Pictures presentation is an alarming focus on a national hazard — the hurried up, focuses on the workers themselves, powerfully dramatizing the awesome personal risk they take in working in the precarious process of mixing plutonium with uranium oxide to form nuclear fuel pellets.

Although Silkwood may be hampered at the box office by its lack of a dramatic climax, it will be more than compensated by word of mouth over Meryl Streep's amazing, plucky performance as Silkwood. Still, audiences who tend to lump subject matter together may reason that since programming is available on TV concerning potential nuclear-age horror (ABC's upcoming The Day After), why go to the theatre to see yet another nuclear-age-danger production? In any event, this worthy film deserves to be seen. Certainly, ABC Motion Pictures might just find a network amenable to airing this film at some point in the future as a movie of the week. 

Reaffirming the wisdom of Jean Renoir, who once said, "The worst thing is that everybody has their reasons," Silkwood is no simplistic good guys vs. bad guys diatribe. Screenwriters Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen have etched with their earthy down-home scenes the story of a company town: Kerr-McGee has a large contract to deliver; its managers have a deadline to meet; its workers must supply the product. But here the product is nuclear fuel rods, and faulty fuel rods can cause a nuclear breeder reactor to explode, which could wipe out a few million people in the surrounding area. 

Silkwood's strength is not in dealing with the abstract but the everyday. It is the story of simple people who work in a nuclear factor, people whose fear that they are being exposed to cancer-inducing plutonium gnaws at their every minute. Extraordinary portrayals of everyday people characterize the contribution of director Mike Nichols' talented diverse cast. Once again, Nichols justifies his past plaudits for bringing the best out of his players.

The cast, most notably Streep, Kurt Russell as her lover/boyfriend and Cher as their dingy, puppylike roommate, crystallize our admiration and sympathy for people trying simply to earn a living and live their lives. Craig T. Nelson as a sullen, sexual-opportunist supervisor and Fred Ward as a perceptive, tension-breaking worker bring well-developed, credible portrayals to their supporting roles. As a dotty worker scared to death by her exposure to plutonium, Sudie Bond gives a riveting portrait of the innocent unwitting victim of nuclear progress. 

Photographed in simple, appropriate style by Miroslav Ondricek, Silkwood is a straightforward, economical film. Georges Delerue's unpretentious musical score, featuring a strumming banjo, adds a musical cadence to the lives of characters whose fear is everyday. 

Technical credits, consistent with the production, are excellent. — Duane Byrge