Based on a true story, Silkwood is all about a woman who works at a plutonium processing plant. Her name is Karen Silkwood and she starts to make some trouble for the management of the plant when she becomes directly involved with the union and starts doing her damnedest to blow the whistle on the numerous dangerous practices that happen around her and her colleagues every day.
It may not be the most exciting story in the world, and the lead character isn't put across as the most likeable person in the world, but Silkwood certainly has a fine pedigree. The script was written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen and Mike Nichols has the directorial duties. Then there's that wonderful cast. Meryl Streep plays the titular character, though it's not her best performance by a long shot, while Kurt Russell plays her on-off lover and Cher does well as her good friend. If you don't like any of those folks then how about Fred Ward, David Strathairn, Bruce McGill, Ron Silver or Craig T. Nelson? All, in my view, mighty fine actors. Even the people with names you probably won't know, such as Diana Scarwid and Sudie Bond, give very good performances and Bond is involved in one of the most harrowing scenes in the entire movie.
It's the real horror of the material here that raises it up for me, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to score the film above average. The dangers of radiation are very well known nowadays but it wasn't all that long ago when people were being misinformed and basically used up, as is the case here. Management and business owners needed results and that meant exposing employees to some serious potential health risks. Best case scenario = they really weren't aware of just how damaging it could be. Worst case scenario = they knew, they knew all too well and would go to any lengths to keep their dirty little secrets hidden away. Silkwood tends toward the latter scenario but there is some ambiguity in the first half, at least, to avoid making the company villains absolute monsters.
The film, as a whole, just didn't work well enough for me but I know that I won't forget certain moments. The character played by Sudie Bond being hauled off and cleaned down after exposure to radiation is as upsetting a scene as any that I can recall from any genre, made all the more effective by Bond's heartbreaking performance in her supporting role. Surprising as it may seem, I have to suggest that Streep is actually the weakest link here. Perhaps there was only so much she could do with her character as it was written or perhaps, as I suspect, it just so happens that someone else would have been much better for the role. I don't know who that actress would be but I do know that when I think of the likes of Margot Kidder or JoBeth Williams in the lead role I feel more intrigued about what could have been. And those are just two choices off the top of my head.
Do watch the movie to see something powerful and distressing and to see some actors doing great work but don't watch the movie just to see Streep in the main role because you may find yourself disappointed.