March 2, 2013

Queer Review: Silkwood (1983)

Director: Mike Nichols
Writers: Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen
Cast: Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, Cher, Craig T. Nelson, Fred Ward, Diana Scarwid, Ron Silver, David Strathairn, Bruce McGill, E. Katherine Kerr, Sudie Bond

Silkwood is a well acted, methodically paced drama based upon the real life story of Karen Silkwood, a labor activist at a factory that manufactured nuclear energy rods who died under mysterious circumstances.

Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep) finds herself becoming suspicious that factory she works at, run by the Kerr-McGee company, is not adhering to proper safety protocols thanks to the fact that the factory is behind schedule on a large order of nuclear energy rods. As her suspicions increase, she becomes involved with the The Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union and is soon elected to their bargaining committee. After secretly attempting to find documentation to substantiate her claims of the dangerous working conditions, she tests positive for plutonium poisoning, raising the possibility that someone at the plant has poisoned her. As Karen becomes increasingly paranoid that company management is trying to silence her, she organizes a meeting with a union official and a reporter from the New York Times, telling them that she had managed to obtain incriminating documentation. She never makes it, dying in an unfortunate car accident on the way to the meeting. When the her car was discovered, none of the documents she had previously claimed to have were found in it.

The Queering
I had put Silkwood in the netflix queue because Keith Stern had listed Karen Silkwood in his Queers in History: The Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Historical Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, and Transgenders. In the encyclopdia's article on Silkwood, Stern claims that she was lovers with her bisexual roommate Sherry Ellis. Therefore, given that Karen Silkwood is presented in this film as being exclusively heterosexual, I was all ready to rake the filmmakers over the coals for straightening out Karen.

However, in doing research for this review, I was unable to find any other sources to substantiate Stern's claim that Karen had both male and female lovers, outside of one source (that seemed mildly sketchy to me) that mentioned her being bisexual. There are other instances where Stern has overstated evidence so I feel a bit of reluctance to criticize Silkwood for straightening out the main character, since you can't really straighten out a character who was straight to begin with.

Furthermore, the filmmakers hold nothing back when it comes to Karen Silkwood's roommate, Dolly Pelliker (Cher). Dolly is shown not only engaging in a lesbian relationship with a hairdresser, but she also confesses to being romantically and unrequitedly in love with Silkwood. Furthermore, while both Silkwood and her male lover, Drew Stephens, are both mildly uncomfortable with Dolly's lover, the character is otherwise presented realistically and in a non-sensational manor. There is even a bit of a queer subtext between Dolly and Karen. The only thing that could be criticized about the character of Dolly, is that during a minor scene, it is suggested that Dolly might have alerted Kerr-McGee and betrayed to them Silkwood's attempts to obtain sensitive documents.

In regards to the overall film, there are many elements worthy of praise. Meryl Streep disappears completely into the character, giving her usual brilliant work. Cher is unrecognizable and allows herself to presented in a completely non-glamorous light while playing a working class factory stiff. Kurt Russell is not given a whole lot to do, other than walk around with his shirt off and give vague warnings to Karen about the danger she is getting herself into.

As I already mentioned, the pacing is deliberate. As a result, there were a few scenes that felt like they could have been shortened or cut. For example, there is a sequence where Drew walks around the house after it was stripped of it's contents while being searched for plutonium poisoning that felt unnecessary. However, there lots of details of the factory and the work being done, that manage to create a realistic picture of what the everyday lives of the factory employees were like. Silkwood in particular comes across as a completely realistic blue collar worker, who only gradually comes into her role as a labor activist.

In terms of historical detail, the filmmakers have wisely stuck to the established record. There is nothing that proves definitively that Silkwood was murdered to silence her before she could go public with any incriminating documentation she might have obtained but there is an overwhelming preponderance of evidence that points in that direction. The final moments of the film are expertly shot and edited to suggest many things while showing nothing clearly. The filmmakers point many fingers in different directions but ultimately allow the audience to draw their own conclusions. In the grande scheme of things, there is no reason that this story should have been told any other way.

Edit: Someone pointed me in the direction of the Lesbian Film Guide which describes Silkwood as bisexual and claims she had multiple female lovers. So we can now add this to the list of films which have straightened their LGBTQ protagonists. I thought the filmmakers had focused a bit too much on Karen's relationships with men for her to have been straight in real life. Now I know why they did that - they wanted to avoid even the suggestion that she might have been queer.

Highly recommended, particularly for those who are interested in learning about the story of Karen Silkwood.

The Rating
*** out of ****


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