'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.

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.

Guiding the action, director Mike Nichols aims his camera for long, uninterrupted stretches at uncannily lifelike scenes, settings, and performances , capturing nuances of working-class landscape and behavior (some shabby, some touching) rarely bothered with in today's movies.

It's especially heartening to see Nichols direct a ''social consciousness'' movie so effectively after his past failures with ''Catch-22'' and ''Day of the Dolphin.'' Despite the drawbacks of the ''Silkwood'' screenplay, written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen, this is a directorial triumph for a filmmaker who has artistically matured during his absence from the screen these past several years. A rare Russian treat

Only a few films have traveled from the Soviet Union to American screens in recent years. Among them, the most striking have been made by Andrei Tarkovsky - one of the most visually radical directors in current cinema, paradoxically based in a land not celebrated for aesthetic liberalism.

Since the American movie-theater system isn't celebrated for economic liberalism - movies that ''sell'' are the ones that get shown - it's also paradoxical that some challenging Tarkovsky pictures have been shown commercially in the US, including ''Solaris'' and ''The Stalker.'' Now another has joined their ranks. I can't imagine it doing much business at the box office , but I'm delighted to see it get even limited exposure before general audiences.

Nostalghia takes its title from a Russian word meaning not just nostalgia, but great pain at being separated from one's country. The hero is a Soviet author researching a book in Italy, where the picture was shot. His guide is a woman translator with romantic hopes he doesn't deign to notice. Staying at a deserted spa, he meets an apparent madman who thinks he can save civilization from its follies if allowed to perform a ritual. The author comes to see him as a fellow visionary - and ends his life trying to fulfill the hermit's dream.

It's a flawed plot, lapsing into hazy symbolism in the middle and heated melodrama at the climax. When he lets the story go and concentrates on imagery, though, Tarkovsky reaches flights of cinematic brilliance unsurpassed by any film in ages. I sat astonished as he moved his camera through areas too dark to fathom, slowly transforming the visual field into a shimmering vision of unearthly resonance. Again as he unveiled the final image, a surreal tableau drawn from the motifs of the whole film. And again during the hero's last scene, a bravura feat of ''real time'' cinema that amazed me with its audacity, thrilled me with its virtuosity, and maddened me with its relentless rhythms and implacable pace.

Tarkovsky is an uncompromising filmmaker. He's more interested in meditation than storytelling - and often steeps his work in a private mythology with its own fund of fiery (and watery) images. His films move slowly, but exercise a fascination unlike anything else I've seen. ''Nostalghia'' isn't an easy film, and parts of it don't succeed. Still, it's a rare treat for moviegoers with an adventurous streak. Antihero poet

The antihero of Reuben, Reuben is a scruffy Scottish poet in New England on a lecture trip. Like a second-rate Dylan Thomas he mixes drinking, womanizing, and philosophizing, meanwhile lamenting his failure to produce a poem in the past five years. Along the way he falls in love with a student whose youth almost, but not quite, revivifies him. The title character is a dog who touches off a morbid gag in the movie's last moments.

Though it's based on two literary sources, a Peter DeVries novel and a Herman Shumlin play, Julius J. Epstein's screenplay for ''Reuben'' is ragged and peppered with cliches, not all of which reside in the protagonist's poems. The picture's energy comes largely from Tom Conti's florid performance in the leading role, full of slouchy walks and deliriously rolled R's. Robert Ellis Miller directed.

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