Karen Silkwood was a nuclear power plant employee, potential whistle blower, and union organizer who died suspiciously after agreeing to meet with a reporter from the New York Times to discuss contamination and faulty medical practices occurring at her workplace. Meryl Streep plays Silkwood as a midwestern gal of grit and sass in Mike Nichols stirring film adaptation, giving the doomed heroine a genuine sadness throughout her multiple exposures to plutonium, criticism from fellow workers, and separation from her crumbling family. Silkwood doesn’t break the mold for this particular sub-genre, but it’s a grueling personal ordeal and Nichols instills a disturbing ambiguousness to the treachery involved, painting Karen into corner after corner, showing an isolated woman trying to transcend society’s indignation for her growing ambition. The performances from Streep, Kurt Russell, and Cher are all top notch, but we should expect nothing less from the director responsible for so many great performance-driven films (Postcards From the Edge being my personal favorite).
Mike Nichols’ problematic and exciting treatment of Congressman Charles Wilson, who single handily helped fund the Afghan Mujahideen against the invading Russians in the 1980’s, is the kind of historical revisionism Hollywood loves – heavy on dramatic weight and light on History. But the film has an energy (mainly due to the first rate performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a smarmy and dedicated C.I.A. agent) that’s hard to deny, even when the screenplay and direction seem overt and preachy. Hoffman and Tom Hanks (as Wilson) share a haunting final scene where the disgruntled spy tells the big wig politician of the impending extremism rising up in Afghanistan. The writing of terrorism is on the wall, but the American Government seems too busy celebrating its momentary victory to foresee the horrors to come.
Watching Streep and Nicholson together under the direction of Mike Nichols should warrant reason for any cinephile to watch this film. However, it’s a rather tepid affair, following the banal chance encounter of the two leads meeting at a wedding, falling in “love”, getting married, and the cliched ensuing hardships. While Nicholson gets tossed under the bus as the philandering husband, Nichols focuses almost entirely on Streep’s beautiful and tormented performance. But it’s a blessing we get to spend so much time with this actress playing an older mother of a young girl and pregnant to boot, her smiles and tears flowing to a rapturing affect. I’m finding Streep’s “regular” performances, that is without an accent or pretension, to be her most brilliant and humane. Her turn in Heartburn belongs side by side with other standouts in Kramer vs. Kramer, Postcards From the Edge, and Bridges of Madison County. She is, without a doubt, the finest thespian America has to offer, and I’m basically willing to watch any of her films, no matter how marginal the overall product. But I still hate The Hours. Sorry Meryl.