'Silkwood': good intentions are fogged in by ambiguity
Silkwood is a fine example of Hollywood's love-hate attitude toward timely and controversial subject matter. The title character is Karen Silkwood, based on a real-life union organizer and shaker-up of the nuclear industry. The story follows her career as reported in the press: Working at a plutonium plant, she grows suspicious of policies and practices that may be cutting corners dangerously. On the sly, she snoops through company files looking for evidence. Publicly she joins the labor front, lobbying for safeguards.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
This draws the wrath of her bosses and possibly their revenge; she finds herself contaminated by radiation more than once. Undeterred, she dreams of proving her case to the world with an antinuke bombshell in the New York Times.
Her home life, meanwhile, is a messy affair involving a live-in boyfriend, a lesbian roommate, and drug abuse that calls into question Silkwood's emotional balance. (This takes a lot of on-screen time and mostly accounts for the R rating.) The picture ends with an auto accident that takes her life as she drives to an appointment with a Times reporter.
The facts and significance of the Silkwood case have been much debated. Was she a bold crusader who gave her life for her cause? Or was she a malcontent fueled more by pep pills than conviction? Was she a martyr, harassed and murdered by corporate greed? Or was she pursued by nothing more sinister than her own irresponsibility on the job and the highway?
The movie sides with Silkwood as a character, playing up her spunk and courage while casting wry, sidelong glances at her failings. When it comes to the issues connected with her, though, the filmmakers slip and slide around, providing an escape hatch (''but on the other hand . . .'') for every position and opinion they offer.
This makes the movie less polemical than it might have been, and a lot more wishy-washy. The filmmakers keep giving us opposing views on issues, expecting us to choose the ''correct'' opinions because they jibe with Silkwood's notions as given by the script. Is a supervisor touching up X-rays to hide defects in products of the plant? Or is he following standard procedure, as he claims? We know what the movie wants us to think. But the matter is never definitively resolved - perhaps to mirror the ambiguity of real life, but more likely to avoid legal liability on the filmmakers' part, since the movie is chockablock with real names, places, and events.
Under these circumstances, ''Silkwood'' won't be much help to anyone seeking clear information on the nuclear industry. Even the finale is deliberately fogged: The scene fades elegantly out as Silkwood sees ominous headlights in her rear-view mirror, then fades in on the aftermath of her fatal crash. Sure, we're encouraged to think bad guys have done her in. But earlier the movie went out of its way to show her in an ''innocent'' car mishap, reminding us of the risks involved in driving. Again the filmmakers have left themselves an out - paying token service to objectivity, but dangerously diluting their drama.
''Silkwood'' might have worked better as a fictional account on the order of ''The China Syndrome,'' which depicted a near-meltdown at a nuclear plant. Presented as fiction, the story could have traded openly in opinions and allegations, thus indulging its cautionary intentions and liberal leanings more fully and freely. As it stands, the picture seems hamstrung by its roots in actual headlines. Maybe that's why it browses so long through the dirty linen of Silkwood's personal life, which has limited connections with the real business at hand.
This is too bad, because on other levels ''Silkwood'' is a strong and imaginative film. Meryl Streep gives the year's most astounding performance by an actress, adding vigor and complexity to almost every scene with her endlessly inventive portrayal of the eccentric heroine. The supporting players skillfully follow her lead.