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Silkwood is somewhat of a love-it or hate-it film for reviewers and is one that leaves them mostly without a consensus. Two things that nearly everyone could agree on were Meryl Streep's convincing portrayal of Karen Silkwood and a confusion (that often spurred contempt) with regard to the "facts," particularly the ending/Karen's death. Many reviewers bring up "facts" that they found or read elsewhere with the aim to prove inconsistencies between the "real" and the "reel." With regard to films as history, two reviews -- Denby's and Schickel's -- are the most interesting, as they (knowingly or unknowingly) put a great amount of responsibility on the filmmakers. Denby seems to completely ignore the "facts" he has read about the real Karen Silkwood, in favor of treating the film's version of Karen as fact. Schickel is harsh in his critique of the film, seemingly due to the fact that it comes to no absolute conclusion about the circumstances of Karen's death and other fuzzy issues in the film. But how could it? Most reviewers acknowledge that there are holes in the story but are very forgiving, whether because they are so impressed by the acting or are aware of the legal issues facing the filmmakers. In general, most agree that an anti-nuke sentiment is not the central theme of Silkwood and that, more likely, the focus of Silkwood would be the challenges that face the American working class. Most of the discussion was devoted to Karen herself -- is she trashy, heroic, smart, delusional, selfish, caring, or all of the above?

Benson, Sheila. Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. Los Angeles Times 14 December 1983: Calendar 1.
The film is "haunting and deeply disturbing" on the subject of plutonium, is "misleading" when dealing with Karen, and is "impossible to feel deeply connected" to because of the nature of the characters. Benson claims that the depiction of Karen's life is not "compelling storytelling," and this is why the viewer can't quite reason out why she does what she does. There is a comparison to Norma Rae; the two films say "activism is apparently incompatible with an ongoing relationship, at least in the redneck South." Benson also brings up the treatment of the "redneck South" as "quaint," like when Karen asks the flight attendant how much her airplane meal will cost.
Bonavoglia, Angela. Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. Cineaste 13.3 (1984): 38.
Bonavoglia is angry, particularly so at Mike Nichols and screenwriter Nora Ephron. She's obviously done her homework on what she calls "The Facts," which she says were ignored in the film. "While a limited degree of artistic license may be permissible in portraying tangential aspects of this docudrama, essential facts must be respected for the genre to have any integrity." She feels that the "tangential aspects," for example, most details about Dolly, are unnecessary and, in fact, take away from what should be the focus of the film. Bonavoglia goes into many details of Karen's actual life that are not addressed in the film and that, importantly, would make her a more likely heroine. She also asks why Nichols didn't tell what really happened to the contaminated truck (that it was washed in a public carwash) or that the real-life Winston actually was touching up dust spots on the negatives, as he submitted in writing to the investigating House Subcommittee.
Canby, Vincent. Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. New York Times 14 December 1983: C27.
Canby throws the film some bones and tries to convince the reader that he enjoyed it, but he has major criticisms that override his niceties. The structure of Silkwood is faulty; "Mr. Nichols and his writers, Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen, have attempted to impose a shape on a real-life story that, even as they present it, has no easily verifiable shape." The biggest problem for Canby is the end. He believes that too many theories on Karen's death are hinted at, thus the film ends "in utter confusion."
Coleman, John. Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. New Statesman 13 April 1984: 29.
"Neither fiction nor documentary but good red herring," is how Coleman sums up the film. He says the only truth in the film is that Meryl Streep gives "yet another totally compelling performance," but the film is mostly a showcase of "wasted talent." Like some other reviewers, Coleman calls for straight fiction.
Combs, Richard. Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. Monthly Film Bulletin April 1984: 121.
Combs' review is interesting in that he talks about what a film like this, "with a preordained conclusion," has to do: "work backwards." The viewer already knows the ending, so Karen's life must be pumped up with blue-collar worker issues and personal epiphany. While he acknowledges that a film based on (not-so-solid) facts cannot invent pieces of the plot, Combs is disappointed that the holes in the story are filled with "soap opera."
Denby, David. Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. New York 26 December 1983: 96.
Denby has heard the facts on the real-life Karen and yet looks to the film as proof that she was "something more interesting than a schoolbook, moral hero." Most of the review is summary, but he is in favor of the multiple-possibility ending, calling it "skillful" and saying that the ending's "businesslike sobriety is far more powerful than Jane Fonda's grandstanding in The China Syndrome."
Doherty, Tom. Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. Film Quarterly Summer 1984: 24.
Doherty takes a more analytical approach with the film, breaking it down instead of comparing it to the facts. His theory on why Silkwood was created: "The confluence of blue-collar rebellion, anti-nuke sentiment, feminist consciousness, and an evocative demise produced a counter-cultural star of the highest magnitude." In his analysis, Doherty claims that the film is clearly divided between "home" and "work." It is when the two come together, whether because of Karen's agenda or Kerr-McGee's invasion and takeover of her home, that things get messy. He feels that the film is a portrait of a working class woman, more than it is an anti-nuke issue film, and, in the end, it "weighs in heavier as soap opera bio-pic than soap box agit-prop." But he thinks that is the way it should be.
Gelmis, Joseph. Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. Newsday 14 December 1983: Part II, 69.
Gelmis has high praise for the performances of Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, and Cher in this film that is "about the consequences of technology on ordinary people." He points out the surrealness of the plant scenes, in which workers "flirt, joke, and gossip while they are handling the world's most lethal carcinogen." Karen herself is "flawed" and "complex" as a pot-smoking bad mother, but she is not the anti-nuke avenger some would make her out to be. Gelmis believes her actions are fueled by a desire to expose "the company's disregard for its workers." According to Gelmis, the ending of the film certainly "implies" that Silkwood was murdered.
Kroll, Jack. Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. Newsweek 12 December 1983: 108.
The great introduction in Kroll's review declares Silkwood entertaining in both senses of the word; "It entertains (absorbs) the audience, and it entertains (considers) important matters." Like many others, he feels the film is not so much about the nuclear industry as it is about blue-collar America -- but these plutonium-mixing jobs make "coal mining look like picking geraniums." Kroll acknowledges Karen's faults, but he ultimately sees in her "a smart, sensitive woman with the constant jitters that come from deep frustration."
Reed, Rex. Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. New York Post 14 December 1983: 44.
Silkwood is "one of the bleakest, most depressing films" of the year and is one that will leave you "muttering to yourself" as you exit the theater. He praises Meryl Streep's performance up and down; Streep captures the "unexceptional everydayness of Karen," who she has undoubtedly "calculatedly studied" to finally present the viewer with a Karen that is "a rather trashy piece of work." Reed does wonder about a key piece of information not given in the film: as one of her co-workers also asked, "Why are you so interested?" Was Karen "a concerned citizen with a caring soul" or "lonely, tortured, driven, and dumb?" One ray of light Reed leaves us with is his conviction that "sometimes it's the second-class citizens who count."
Sarris, Andrew. Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. Village Voice 27 December 1983: 67.
Sarris calls the film "well worth seeing" but "far from flawless." To him, Karen is a hero, and "Streep's Silkwood is made of much sturdier and coarser material than silk." The restaurant scene with the kids is highlighted as an "aching family reunion" where there is an exceptional show of "lifelike pain, humor, guilt, and, yes, grace under impossible pressure." Sarris separates Silkwood from Norma Rae in one scene. He says that Karen's flashing "a tit" at her co-worker, an act of "antierotic abruptness," is what distances her from the "warmly womanly underdog" Norma Rae. The flaw, of course, is in the ending, as "the movie does not so much end as stop."
Sawyer, Charles. Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. Films In Review March 1984: 178.
Sawyer rips the film to shreds, criticizing all things Silkwood from the film's recreation of Oklahoma working class lifestyle to Cher's Oscar nomination. The only reason this film was made, he says, is because of the controversy surrounding Silkwood's death; beyond that, "there would be no interest in this story at all." He claims the film is "cold," completely lacking in emotion, and thus it is impossible for the audience to be drawn in. It seems, though, that Sawyer can't allow himself to review Silkwood without comparing it to Norma Rae. His continual praise of Sally Field (or Fields as he calls her) and Norma Rae in contrast with his harsh attitude toward Streep and Silkwood could be likened to a fight between children, with Field(s)/Norma Rae being his child, somehow crossed by Streep/Silkwood. The one credit Sawyer gives the film is in a lengthy paragraph about a court decision, which was brought on by Silkwood producer Buzz Hirsch's refusal to turn over (to Kerr-McGee) information he had gathered in research for the film. This decision grants "filmmakers the same first-amendment protection traditionally afforded print journalists."
Schickel, Richard. Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. Time 19 December 1983: 73.
Schickel bares his teeth from the first sentence and doesn't let up throughout the article. He disregards the idea of the real-life Silkwood as a martyr for the nuclear age as something only leftists and feminists could possibly buy into. On the filmmakers: "rarely has the desperation to square inspirational myth with provable, nonlibelous reportage been more apparent." Interestingly, most of his review works on the assumption that the film is responsible to provide answers, and since it only raises more questions, Schickel is quite unsatisfied. He is also among the few that criticize Streep's performance. Streep, who usually plays "self-consciously intelligent women," is out of her element with Karen Silkwood and thus delivers a character that is "at once forced and pulled back."
Sterritt, David. Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. Christian Science Monitor 1 May, 1984: 24.
Sterritt focuses on the negative for the majority of the review, ultimately calling the film "wishy-washy" and blaming the filmmakers for "diluting their drama." His basic claim is that the film brings up many issues which are never resolved with a strong, conclusive answer. He brings up the example of Winston's touch-up of the negatives and wonders aloud if he was really just "following standard procedure," but that was one issue with an arguably clear answer. "We know what the movie wants us to think," Sterritt says. In his opinion, Silkwood should have been treated more as a "fictional account," without regard for the actual persons involved, thus providing the viewer with a tidy ending.

See Also

Arnold, Gary. Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. Washington Post 14 December 1983: D1.

Ebert, Roger. "'Silkwood' Tells the Compelling Story of a Human Life." Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. Chicago Sun-Times 14 December 1983: 77.

Kael, Pauline. Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. New Yorker 9 January 1984: 99.

Kauffmann, Stanley. Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. New Republic 23 January 1984: 24.

Kempley, Rita. Rev. of Silkwood, dir Mike Nichols. Washington Post (Weekend) 16 December 1983: 23.

Kissel, Howard. Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. Women's Wear Daily 13 December 1983: 16.

Seitz, Michael H. "The Silkwood Mystery." Rev. of Silkwood, dir Mike Nichols. Progressive February 1984: 38.

Variety. Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. 23 November 1983: 14.