Nora Ephron came to be defined by the melding of authentic comedic and romantic sentiments in a series of films that took place squarely in a world audiences recognized and felt comfortable in. Her most successful efforts as a screenwriter or director (or both) were funny, heartfelt, and most importantly, felt real.
Layered inside those poignant romantic comedies that connected with large audiences (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless In Seattle, You’ve Got Mail) are singular themes that have been prevalent in Ephron’s work since her early writing efforts. Ephron’s signature craft of humor and romance is resting on a foundation of survival and crisis, two things Ephron had experienced not only in her own personal life but also something she explored in her first screenplay, Silkwood.
Released in 1983, Silkwood is a well-paced character driven film based on the novel of the same name. It is the true story of Karen Silkwood, a nuclear plant worker in Oklahoma, who takes on the responsibility of exposing unethical and illegal activity at the nuclear plant and the ensuing harassment, physical danger, and emotional strain Karen experiences.
Silkwood marks the first of several collaborations between Ephron and actress Meryl Streep (Silkwood, Heartburn, Julie & Julia) and director Mike Nichols (Silkwood, Heartburn.) Silkwood operates in the same dramatic atmosphere as the 1979 film, Norma Rae starring Sally Field as well as predating the successful Steven Soderbergh/Julia Roberts 2000 film, Erin Brockovich (interesting note, all three films have titles which are the main female protagonist name.) All three films share strong female protagonists, rallying in the face of serious personal risk in the name of doing what’s right not for their own best interests but for the collective benefit of those unable or unwilling to stand up for themselves.
Silkwood is seeped in cigarette smoke and deep blue collars. Simple folk swapping work shifts in factory break rooms, sharing cigarettes and ham sandwiches, and blowing out birthday candles next to plutonium fuel rod stations. The film is populated with the great American working class born out of the end of the Second World War. A class of people inching closer to their extinction as the rest of the country prepares to enter a new age of business and greed in the early 80’s.
Ephron, Streep, and Nichols do not present Karen’s journey through a prism of purity, honor and nobility but rather in authentically crowded emotional realities of a flawed woman surviving on her own instinct of truth and morality. Karen smokes too much, takes pills, has a fractured relationship with her ex husband and children and struggles to maintain a domestic relationship with her boyfriend Drew and roommate Dolly. Karen’s own dysfunctions are as real as the dangerous practices at the nuclear plant. The stakes of the physical threat of exposure to radiation that Karen accuses her employers of ignoring are matched by surviving the exposure to the human drama at Silkwood’s core.
Karen’s universe is populated by what has become her immediate family – boyfriend Drew (a wonderful Kurt Russell) and lesbian roommate Dolly (played by an equally impressive Cher.) Russell’s baby faced Drew is a hunk of Oklahoma/Texas good-ole’boy. Russell nails the subtle charisma of Drew, down to the way he devilishly side steps domestic flair ups between Karen and Dolly in the kitchen. Like a lot of these types of characters, Drew’s good nature and support is predicated upon things staying the same. Drew is happy at work, happy fixing up cars, and happy to share his life with Karen. Drew’s world is small and manageable. Drew has difficulty accepting Karen’s decision to fight the plant and its managers – Drew sees the potential problems and would rather leave things well enough alone. This strain ultimately leads to his and Karen’s split – the love is still there, but Karen had to make a choice. She chooses to fight, and Drew flees, leaving both of them feeling abandoned and alone.
Cher’s subtle and powerful turn as Karen’s lesbian roommate, Dolly, almost steals the film. Within the film Dolly provides much needed comic flair – a sense of lightness among the serious circumstances of the story. A quasi-closeted lesbian, Dolly slyly professes her love for Karen in a genuine private moment between the two women. Ultimately, Dolly represents the ideals that Karen is fighting for. Not being afraid to stand up to something greater than you and demand proper treatment and respect.
As the story progresses and Karen journeys deeper into her quest for exposing the truth, the film does not ascend into a full on thriller. Instead the film continues to push the emotional stress of Karen and those around her.
The pacing of the film stumbles a bit in the final act – with Director Nichols seemingly not certain how to tie up the ultimate tragic end of Karen’s life and the film.
Karen Silkwood died under mysterious circumstances. She was driving alone late at night, on a deserted road on her way to turn over incriminating documents to a New York Times reporter. Officially, Karen died from injuries sustained in a single car crash. The film suggests that she was forced off the road by an approaching car. Given that no documents were found in her vehicle, leaves one to wonder if in fact those threatened by Karen’s act of morality were willing to go that far.
The film ends with a close-up of Karen Silkwood’s real gravestone. A final moment of reality in a film that achieves something truly special; an authentic and genuine reflection of human drama.
*Robert Lyren is a FIlm & Video Director. He is also the head of Film & Television Department at the American School of Bangkok, Thailand.