merylfest: SILKWOOD (1983)

Playing a mulleted Oklahoman 1970s anti-heroine, Streep played 1983’s title character of Silkwood with immense sensitivity and range, and it seems like her first major push from demure and lady-like to powerful screen presence (although I haven’t seen Manhattan yet). Karen Silkwood is a real-life woman who, in the midst of nuclear plant workers being kept in the dark about the dangers of radiation, takes on the man to get the truth to the national unions. Her character starts out the movie as the rebellious young worker among the other more serious co-workers in her room at the plant. Her interactions with her two roommates — on-again, off-again lover Drew (Kurt Russell) and sort of down-low lesbian Dolly (Cher) — play her as the goof-ball type, more inclined to slack off her radiation monitoring than to abide by the code of conduct.


Though her 1980s stints tended on the period-piece spectrum, this surprising biopic seems timely even today. Karen is the only worker in the small, down-and-out town that has the gutsiness to stand up for her less-inclined friends. And her tumultuous relationships with her ex-husband and her three kids that she sees once a month further personifies her as deeply flawed and having gone through some degree of emotional damage. What sets this performance apart from others may be her almost hippie-chick attitude toward life transforming into a shaky but effective leader for the underdogs.

Aside from the obviously excellent work from Streep, the film is a rarity in biopics — as opposed to a mimicked timeline piece that feels more like reading from an encyclopedia entry, it crafts a deeply effective and entertaining story. Cher’s character perhaps captures the mood and the setting of the story best with her androgynous laborer performance. In a place where workers are merely two hands and a head, a foreman can pay little mind to the deadly effects on the body.


Meryl’s Performance: A
The Film: A-
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