Monday, January 27, 2020

Silkwood Quietly Captures the Struggles of Fighting For Workers' Rights

Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep), the titular protagonist of Silkwood, isn't all that remarkable and that suits her just fine. She just wants to earn enough money to pay the bills at her job at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site and have enough time to see her three kids on a regular basis. She isn't interested in being someone particularly noteworthy. However, life has a funny way of thrusting the unexpected in our direction. Karen's job is full of hazards that include a high level of risk of exposure to hazardous forms of radiation and, wouldn't you know it, Karen eventually finds evidence that her superiors are saving money at the expense of the safety of their employees.

Suddenly, Karen, who has also recently learned that she's been exposed to dangerous amounts of radiation, previously just another nine-to-five worker at her plant, is now stumping for the rights of the workers and becoming a thorn in the side of the powerful folks who own this plant. In one of the best touches in the screenplay by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen, Karen's struggles to get people to recognize the dangers at her job don't just lead her to be adversarial with her bosses. It also means her fellow employees turn their back on Karen. Her fellow employees fear the risks of being seen consorting with somebody deemed persona non grata by the higher-ups that control their paychecks.

This is especially true of Craig T. Nelson's supporting character Winston, who views Karen and the other union organizers as a threat to a status quo that he finds comforting, while Karen's own roommates Drew Stephens (Kurt Russell) and Dolly Pelliker (Cher) also express discomfort with Karen's plan to take her employers to task. Conflict to change the default nature of things emerges from all angles, including one's neighbors, in Silkwood. It's an uphill battle in every possible respect, making the film's depiction of Karen Silkwood's turmoil an accurate and thoughtful portrait of how difficult it is to push along essential adjustments in the face of noncommittal attitudes.

Such a struggle is framed through Mike Nichols' direction and Miroslav Ondricek's cinematography, both of which opt for prolonged single-takes that capture the myriad of emotions characters experience in extended conversations through a singular wide shot. Occasionally these shots feel like they could stand to be broken up just to improve their pacing. Predominately, though, this approach proves to be successful thanks to how it allows for the interactions of the characters to come across as authentic. There aren't any edits to leap over the stumbles in their conversations or their realistic body language, it's like we're in the same room as Karen and Drew watching them navigate these daunting circumstances related to the rights of workers.

Such circumstances are reflected nicely in Ondricek's choice to frame much of the movie in wide shots. Much like how John Ford would use wide shots in his Westerns to show his protagonists dwarfed by their surrounding environments, wide shots in Silkwood are used to convey the challenges that Karen faces when championing the rights of workers. A scene where Karen enters a bustling lunchroom only for it to quickly empty, leaving her to eat alone, is an exceptional example of this particular utilization of wide shots. In this case, all of those empty tables littered across the background of this wide shot quietly emphasizes just how alone Karen frequently is in crusading for her cause. She may be eating alone but through the way Ondricek's uses empty space in this wide shot, it feels like all the pressures and social isolation are right there in the room with her.

Silkwood knows how to use wide shots well and the quiet melancholy captured in so many of these types of shots helps to make Karen's plight one you can become easily emotionally invested in. It also helps that the character is played by Meryl Streep in a lead performance that deftly maintains her characters' rough-around-the-edges nature even after she takes up championing the rights of the worker. Also delivering solid work in the cast is Cher as Dolly Pelliker, a character who provides some of the most delightful moments in the film by way of frequently appearing in the background of certain scenes just chilling with her girlfriend. It's just a nice touch and one of many great details that make Silkwood such an engaging watch.

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