History of the World: Part I (1981)

“And of course, with the birth of the artist came the inevitable afterbirth: the critic.”

Synopsis:
Mel Brooks takes a comedic romp through various stages of world history, including the Stone Age, Ancient Rome, the Spanish Inquisition, and the French Revolution.

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Review:
It’s hard to know exactly why Peary includes this final pre-1986 Mel Brooks title in his GFTFF, given that the only other Brooks film he openly praises in any way is Young Frankenstein (1974). HOTW Part 1 (thankfully, there’s no …Part 2) is chock-full of typically Brooks-ian low-brow humor, minus any kind of cohesive satirical narrative to hold it together — in other words, even less of interest to anyone but his most diehard fans (of whom there are plenty). Naturally, in a film filled with insistently non-stop jokes and gags, at least a few are bound to elicit chuckles; as noted in All Movie Guide’s review, however, its “bad parts are so unworthy of its good parts that it creates a state of total schizophrenia.” Meanwhile, some of its “bad parts” (as in Blazing Saddles) edge beyond what most would consider common decency — i.e., a real-life chess game dictated by King Louis XIV (Brooks) in the French Revolution segment eventually devolves into a gang bang sequence that’s played for laughs. Film fanatics can definitely feel free to stay away from this one.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A few mildly clever sight gags and scenes

Must See?
No; despite its enduring popularity, this one is strictly for Brooks fans.

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Blazing Saddles (1974)

“There is one thing standing between me and that property — the rightful owners.”

Synopsis:
A corrupt politician (Harvey Korman) hoping to build a railroad through the town of Rock Ridge plots to drive out its racist, ignorant inhabitants by appointing a black man (Cleavon Little) as sheriff — but Little enlists the help of an alcoholic gunslinger (Gene Wilder) in fighting back against Korman.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
While I disagree with Peary’s sour take on Mel Brooks’ delightfully irreverent debut film The Producers (1968), I’m in full agreement with his review of this follow-up western satire, which may have been “an enormous hit” but remains “graceless and stupid”, with “humor” that’s “crude, rude, obvious, repetitive, [and] self-impressed”. Peary writes that “scenes are like clunky Carol Burnett Show routines combined with stilted burlesque revue acts”, and argues that “Brooks consistently relies on either raunchy humor or anachronisms to get laughs”; the fact that the film’s “most famous scene has cowboys breaking wind around [a] campfire” indicates the level of humor generally at work. While it’s true that Brooks “shows no fondness for the western genre”, even worse is how his attempt to satirize racism falls completely flat: he shows us African-Americans (referred to repeatedly as “N*ggers”) and Asian-Americans (“Chinks”) being treated worse than animals, with the intention that we’ll laugh at how absurdly ignorant these bigoted white townsfolk come across — but the satirical “pay-off” is far too facile, and doesn’t begin to make up for having to sit through such offensive behavior and language.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder as Bart and Jim
  • Occasional snippets of humorous dialogue:

    Korman: What’s your crime?
    Little: Stampeding cattle.
    Korman: That’s not much of a crime.
    Little: Through the Vatican?
    Korman: Kinky…

Must See?
No; this one is only recommended for Brooks fans.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Producers, The (1968)

“Read, read! We’ve got to find the worst play ever written!”

Synopsis:
Unscrupulous theatrical producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) conspires with nebbishy accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) to make money by producing a guaranteed flop entitled “Springtime for Hitler”, written by a neo-Nazi (Kenneth Mars) and featuring a middle-aged hippie named LSD (Dick Shawn) as Hitler. Their plan to pocket the investment money donated by gullible elderly women is foiled, however, when audience members unexpectedly view their musical as a brilliant satire rather than tasteless trash.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is decidedly unenamored with this cult comedy by Mel Brooks, arguing that its “major strength” is “its clever premise”. He notes that “Max and Leo are too sweet to corrupt themselves in such a manner”, and further defends this assertion in his more extensive Cult Movies review, where he argues that “likable Max isn’t sinister enough and likable Leo isn’t corruptible enough” to sink to the depths of producing an “homage to Hitler”. In GFTFF, he further posits that “those people who start to walk out on Springtime would not return to their seats when LSD appears” on stage, given that “those who think the play is offensive… wouldn’t think a hippie Hitler is funny”. Meanwhile, Peary complains that while “Max would seem to be the ideal role for Zero Mostel”, he “looks uncomfortable whenever anyone else is dominating a scene and, like the most unskilled, insecure amateur, resorts to mugging to get attention”.

While I’m far from a diehard Brooks fan — and agree in general with Peary’s complaint (in Cult Movies) that he tends to “equate innovation with simply breaking taboos” — I don’t share Peary’s sentiments about Brooks’ anarchic debut film, which remains bitingly humorous throughout most of its quickly-paced running time. I don’t find Max and Leo “too sweet” to pull off a scheme like this (they each have their reasons for conspiring in the plan), and I believe Mostel’s over-the-top, iconic performance as Bialystock is spot-on. I’ll admit that my interest in the storyline begins to wane once Shawn hits the stage, wowing the fictional audience with his “flower power” rendition as Hitler, given that I find his aged-hippie character dated and not really all that funny. But this somehow suits the arc of the film perfectly, given that we’re meant to be thrown off balance when Max and Leo’s plans go so horribly awry (they don’t find Shawn funny, either). While not all scenes are consistently humorous — I could do without the silly, sexist inclusion of “Ulla” (Lee Meredith) as Max and Leo’s token blonde secretary, for instance — the balance is clearly in favor of scenes that “work”, making The Producers an enjoyably outrageous comedy that film fanatics won’t want to miss.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock
  • Gene Wilder as Leo Bloom
  • Estelle Winwood as “Hold Me Touch Me” (in the hilarious opening credit sequence)
  • Max and Leo’s initial encounter with Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett) and Carmen Ghia (Andréas Voutsinas)
  • Brooks’ cleverly satirical script
  • The audaciously tasteless “Springtime for Hitler” production number

Must See?
Yes, naturally, as a certified comedy classic.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Twelve Chairs, The (1970)

“Pride is a luxury that neither you nor I can afford at this time in our lives.”

Synopsis:
A former nobleman (Ron Moody) in the Soviet Union learns from his dying mother-in-law that she hid her family jewels in a chair, part of a set of twelve that have since been sold. With the assistance of a blackmailing con-man (Frank Langella), he embarks on a quest to locate the missing jewels, encountering an unexpected rival in the form of a priest (Dom DeLuise) who heard about the hidden treasure during a confession.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “uneven but fairly enjoyable Mel Brooks comedy” — based on a satirical Russian novel from 1928, and essentially a “period remake of [Fred Allen’s] It’s in the Bag” — suffers from overly “deliberate” pacing, making the story “start to drag so much that one wishes at times [Brooks] would punch it up with silly humor.” Indeed, diehard Brooks fans excited to learn about this early entry in his oeuvre — made just after his cult 1968 hit The Producers — will likely be disappointed to find that the humor here is, for the most part, decidedly restrained. DeLuise’s greedy ex-priest is clearly meant to serve as a comedically buffoonish foil, but he’s irritating rather than humorous; meanwhile, Moody and an impossibly young, sexy Langella make for an interesting duo (I disagree with Peary’s assertion that they’re “just too unsympathetic” for us to care about their “developing relationship”) — but their performances seem better suited for a serious drama than a comedy. This one is ultimately too uneven to recommend as must-see, but certainly worth a one-time look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Frank Langella as Ostap Bender
  • Frank Moody as Ippolit

Must See?
No, though it will likely be of cult interest to diehard Brooks fans.

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Confidentially Yours (1983)

“These idiots suspect me. They want to detain me.”

Synopsis:
When the owner (Jean-Louis Trintignant) of a real estate agency is accused of murdering his acquaintance (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) and then his adulterous wife (Caroline Sihol), his plucky secretary (Fanny Ardant) helps him try to gather evidence proving his innocence.

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Review:
Francois Truffaut’s final film was this disappointing homage to Hitchcock, about a falsely accused man and the resourceful, beautiful woman who puts her life on the line to help prove his innocence. Based on Charles Williams’ pulp crime novel The Long Saturday Night, it strategically hearkens back to mid-century noir (the b&w cinematography by Nestor Almendros is lovely), but with disconcerting humor thrown in, complicating the mood. Murders are committed, and lives are on the line, but we somehow sense that the protagonist and his plucky assistant will emerge unscathed by the end. It’s frustrating to see how badly Trintignant (not exactly a traditional ladies’ man) treats his gorgeous secretary, who maintains an inexplicable loyalty to him throughout the proceedings; I suppose his hard-boiled edge is meant to evoke noir-ish tinges of Bogart, but his utter lack of chemistry with Ardant (who comes across like a bit of a foolhardy ninny) defeats this intent. Worst of all is that the final outcome of the mystery comes out of nowhere, leaving sleuthing viewers with a sense of frustrated defeat.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nestor Almendros’ cinematography

Must See?
No; this one is strictly for Truffaut completists. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

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Two English Girls / Deux Anglaises et le Continent, Le (1971)

“They stopped by a river full of torrents: they decided the tumbling water was like Ann, the eddies like Claude, the peaceful pools like Muriel.”

Synopsis:
In the early 20th century, a young Frenchman (Jean-Pierre Leaud) befriends two English sisters — Ann (Kika Markham) and Muriel (Stacey Tendeter) — while living with them and their mother (Sylvia Marriott) in their countryside home. With encouragement from Ann, Claude (Leaud) falls in love with Muriel, but his mother (Marie Mansart) insists that they spend a year apart to verify their commitment to one another. Claude soon finds himself attracted to other women, and when Ann arrives in Paris to study art, she and Claude begin an affair, thus further complicating Claude’s feelings towards both sisters.

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Review:
Peary notes that while he once found this adaptation of Henri-Pierre Roche‘s novel to be “depressing and endless”, he “now considers it one of Truffaut’s most romantic films, a heartfelt exploration of the passions, jealousies, inadequacies, and insecurities of young lovers”. He writes that “Truffaut’s three sheltered, innocent characters take years to consummate their loves, so handicapped are they by interfering mothers, as well as by physical infirmities and cockeyed personal moralities” — but he posits that “the relationships between Claude and each sister are mutually beneficial, no matter that he takes advantage of them and they manipulate him into filling their sexual and intellectual needs”. He points out that “as in Jules and Jim (also from a novel by… Roche) and Stolen Kisses, lovers never love each other equally at the same time”; but he argues that “the romance comes through anyway because of cinematographer Nestor Almendros’s pictorial beauty…, Georges Delerue’s lush, haunting score, and Truffaut’s singular ability to make us sense that the hearts of his characters… are beating several times faster and louder than our own”.

There’s no denying the “pictorial beauty” of Two English Girls, which is consistently gorgeous, with fine attention paid to period detail. However, the storyline itself suffers from being too much of a somber literary adaptation, with Truffaut’s customary voice-over dominating the proceedings. Ultimately, those who have seen Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (and which film fanatic hasn’t?) will recognize this later film as simply a variation on the same theme; indeed, Leaud’s callow character is clearly based on Roche, and is even seen at one point writing and publishing a novel called Jerome et Julien, “about a woman who loved two men… It was his story, which transposed his love for the two sisters.” But while Jules and Jim remains a heady New Wave classic, utilizing creative editing and a non-linear storyline, Two English Girls takes more than two hours to tell its multi-year tale, and eventually becomes somewhat wearisome. In sum, I find myself agreeing with Peary’s initial take on the movie (as “depressing and endless”), rather than with his later enthusiasm.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nestor Almendros’ cinematography
  • Georges Delerue’s score

Must See?
No, though Truffaut fans will want to check it out.

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Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

“We burn them to ashes, and then burn the ashes — that’s our official motto.”

Synopsis:
In an anti-literate future where citizens are discouraged from independent thinking, firemen like Montag (Oskar Werner) burn the books they find hidden in people’s homes. Montag’s wife, Linda (Julie Christie), is perfectly content remaining sedated through pills and watching her “wall screen” all day, while his neighbor Clarisse (also Christie) questions the government’s motives, and struggles with losing her teaching position. Will Montag choose a “safe” life of ignorance with his beautiful wife, or assist Clarisse and rebel against the very laws he’s paid to enforce?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary posits that “the sci-fi genre got a needed dose of respectability when Francois Truffaut adapted Ray Bradbury’s classic novel,” but argues that “unfortunately, Truffaut’s low-keyed, ungimmicky production is a disappointment — as is Bradbury’s novel, if you reread it today.” He notes that while “there are some haunting visuals” and “a couple of tense confrontations between idealistic fireman Guy Montag… and his stern captain (Cyril Cusack)”, the “film lacks the passion present in Truffaut’s other films” — perhaps because “Truffaut, the true romantic, had trouble rationalizing Montag preferring an asexual, purely intellectual relationship with a woman who reads… to years of lovemaking with his pleasure-seeking… wife”. He writes that “if the choice were between love/sex and seeing films (rather than reading books), then Truffaut could have felt more emotional about Montag’s willingness to sacrifice home, wife, and job and risk his life”.

While Peary’s hypothesis is a provocative one, I don’t think it quite holds water. First, as much as he adored every aspect of films and filmmaking, Truffaut was a deeply literate man who found tremendous value in books and writing — as is evident not only in many of his other films (where he often shows his characters engaged in thoughtful writing), but through his lifelong work as a screenwriter, as well as his frequent decision to adapt novels for the screen. Second, Montag isn’t shown being “seduced” by Clarisse in any way — in fact, their relationship never smacks of anything other than complicity in their growing awareness of how restricted their lives are. Linda and Clarisse (cleverly portrayed by the same actress — though this wasn’t Truffaut’s original intent) simply serve as dueling catalysts in Montag’s deeply personal struggle — indeed, Fahrenheit 451 is all about Montag.

On that note, Werner and Truffaut notoriously butted heads over their conception of how Montag should be portrayed, to the point where their friendship ended bitterly and Werner attempted to sabotage continuity in the final scenes of the film by cutting his hair (!). While many disagree, I find Werner’s performance to be oddly compelling, in a robotic sort of way — he acts exactly how I would imagine a man in his position (and within this particular society) might act under such circumstances. Meanwhile, though Christie’s performance as short-haired Clarisse (her wig is terrible) isn’t particularly noteworthy, she does a fine job portraying Linda as a willing Stepford Wife, exhibiting an appropriate air of befuddlement when her husband suddenly begins to sabotage the secure life they’ve created for themselves. The best performance in the film, however, is a brief one given by stage actress Bee Duffel as “The Book Lady”, whose love of books overrides any other sense of self-preservation; she’s haunting to watch in her few moments on screen.

As a whole, however, I agree with Peary that the film is somewhat of a “disappointment”, perhaps due in part to limitations in the original novel (which I haven’t read in many years — but message board posts on IMDb corroborate this suspicion). There are ultimately too many glaring inconsistencies and unanswered questions in the story itself to allow this adaptation to be anything other than a provocatively stylized rendering of a uniquely dystopian society; as DVD Savant puts it, “Conceptual problems that may have been easy to evade in print, leap out of the movie screen”, mostly revolving around Truffaut’s choice to show the entire society as “printless”. Yet it’s certainly worth a one-time look by film fanatics — for its visuals, its enduringly relevant themes, and a stand-out score by Bernard Herrmann.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Oskar Werner as Montag
  • Bee Duffel as “the Book Lady”
  • Fine art direction and cinematography (the latter by Nicolas Roeg)
  • Bernard Herrmann’s score

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for one-time viewing.

Links:

Day for Night / Nuit Américaine, Le (1973)

“Shooting a movie is like a stagecoach ride in the old west. At first you hope for a nice trip; soon you just hope to reach your destination.”

Synopsis:
With his loyal script girl (Nathalie Baye) by his side, a director (Francois Truffaut) making an innocuous romantic drama in Nice experiences seemingly endless troubles with his stars — including a young male lead (Jean-Pierre Leaud) whose infatuation with a sexy apprentice (Dani) serves as a constant distraction; a young female lead (Jacqueline Bisset) recovering from a mental breakdown; an older male lead (Jean-Pierre Aumont) with a secret love life; and an older female lead (Valentina Cortese) with a drinking problem.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Francois Truffaut’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film” is “as intricately constructed as Nashville,” “giving us glimpses into the chaotic lives of the various members of cast and crew (and their companions) who all seem to be sleeping with each other”. He notes that “the film debunks myths about the glamour of the movies”, given that “the performers are emotional wrecks, filming is done out of sequence and in bits and pieces, prompt cards are taped to walls, [and] night scenes are filmed in the day”. He argues that the “film is, surprisingly, a tribute to actors, who are insecure, vulnerable, and constantly suffering, yet are generous and sacrificing” — but I don’t quite agree; instead, what stands out to me is the critical role played on set by the non-glamorous assistants, as epitomized by Truffaut’s script girl (Baye), who is constantly at his side, on the move, and willing to step in as needed to rectify the (at times) ridiculous or seemingly hopeless situations that emerge.

Regardless, Day for Night remains a delightfully absorbing backstage drama, one which almost instantly makes us (as viewers) regret any criticism we heap upon “poor” filmmakers, given what a miracle it apparently is that anything noteworthy ever emerges from their efforts. In addition to a classic scene involving a kitten who refuses to drink the milk placed in front of it, the most memorable instance of such insanity is the tragic yet hilarious extended sequence in which drunk Cortese attempts in vain to remember her lines and open up the correct door; to that end, Cortese perfectly embodies an aging diva desperate to maintain her dignity while clearly on the path towards irreparable decline, and Jean-Pierre Aumont is equally well-cast as her past-and-present romantic co-star. Much less involving is the storyline involving Leaud’s callow, self-absorbed young star; his single-minded passion for a free-spirited young woman (Dani) is simply a distraction. However, Bisset gives a fine, vulnerable performance as the female star of the film, who doesn’t arrive on set until fairly late in the film but remains a dominant presence. She’s never been lovelier (and her French is quite remarkable).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jacqueline Bisset as Julie
  • Valentina Cortese as Severine
  • Nathalie Baye as Joelle
  • A fascinating, amusing look at behind-the-scenes film-making

  • Georges Delerue’s score

Must See?
Yes, as one of Truffaut’s most enjoyable movies, and an invaluable glimpse at both the joys and struggles inherent in film-making.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Wild Child, The (1970)

“I think the only cause of his dumbness is the isolation in which he lived.”

Synopsis:
In 18th century France, Dr. Itard (Francois Truffaut) assumes responsibility for training a young boy (Jean-Pierre Cargol) found living feral in the forest — but he soon begins to question exactly how much he can teach Cargol, who may have been irreparably damaged by his years of solitary existence.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that while the “true story” behind Truffaut’s ninth feature-length film “makes for a fascinating movie premise”, and that the “portrayals by both Cargol and Truffaut are believable”, it’s nonetheless “not as enjoyable as one would hope”. He cites several potential reasons for this, including “the absence of humor”, the lack of “surprises (since fictional works have covered the same subject)”, the fact that “the mystery of the boy’s origins was never solved”, and/or resentment for “what the doctor is doing (even though he has good intentions)”. My major complaint about the film — which I actually find admirably low-key and restrained for Truffaut — is that the emphasis placed on Itard’s chronicled methods for trying to “train” Victor eventually starts to feel both repetitive and ill-conceived. While Peary argues that “the most interesting scenes are those in which the boy temporarily tires of civilization’s restraints/rules and, like Tarzan, returns to the wilderness and his brutish state” (thus revealing Peary’s naturalistic bias), there’s never really any doubt that Victor is better off learning how to live within society. What’s unfortunate is that the film — remaining clinically faithful to Itard’s published articles, including plenty of voice-overs by Truffaut-as-Itard — eventually focuses almost exclusively on Itard’s relentless attempt to impose joyless academic learning on Victor, at the expense of more valuable “lessons” in (for instance) social interaction with peers.

Unlike Peary, most other critics found (and continue to find) much to praise about the film; for instance, Time Out’s reviewer calls it “as lucid and wryly witty a film as you could wish for, uncluttered by superfluous period detail”, with “a beautiful use of simple techniques” — such as “black-and-white photography, Vivaldi music, even devices as outmoded as the iris” — “giv[ing] it a very refreshing quality”. While my ultimate opinion lies somewhere in between Peary’s and the above assessment, what I’m most impressed by in the film is the astonishing performance given by Cargol, a gypsy selected from 2,500 potential boys to play the title role. Cargol (who apparently never acted again, instead turning to a career in music as an adult) is never anything less than entirely believable, seemingly remaining oblivious to the presence of the camera as he gives one of the most convincing child performances I’ve ever seen on screen. It’s for his performance alone that I recommend this film as one-time must-see viewing for film fanatics (who will surely also appreciate Nestor Almendros’ luminous b&w cinematography).

Note: Click here to read some additional background on the film, told in part from the perspective of Truffaut’s daughter, Laura, who was on the set as a child.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jean-Pierre Cargol as Victor
  • Francois Truffaut as Dr. Itard
  • Fine b&w cinematography by Nestor Almendros

Must See?
Yes, simply for Cargol’s astonishingly “natural” performance.

Categories

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Silkwood (1983)

“I think you’d do just about anything to shut down this plant.”

Synopsis:
A nuclear factory employee named Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep) is distressed to learn that her company may be engaging in less-than-safe practices — but as she becomes more active in her local union, she finds herself increasingly isolated from her co-workers, who fear loss of their jobs if the factory shuts down.

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Review:
Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated performance firmly grounds this disturbing biopic about labor union activist Karen Silkwood, whose mysterious death in a car accident while on her way to meet with a reporter remains one of the most notorious instances of “whistle blowers” meeting an untimely demise. Given that viewers know the outcome of this real-life tragedy in advance, director Mike Nichols (working from a script by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen) wisely frames his story as both an ethnographic look at Silkwood’s working-class existence — she’s estranged from her kids, living with her boyfriend (Kurt Russell) and lesbian friend (Cher) — and as an unsolved mystery story (is someone contaminating Silkwood on purpose?). Streep, naturally, is phenomenal in the title role, providing a nuanced portrayal of a woman who’s both easy to like (she’s amiable and free-spirited) and easy to hate (she’s mildly manipulative and not easily deterred). What’s most fascinating about her story — other than seeing how close-to-the-edge she and her co-workers live on a daily basis, given the dangerous work they’re doing — is watching Silkwood’s consciousness slowly growing, as she uncovers more and more instances of suspiciously neglectful and/or deceitful behavior on the part of her employers. The “scrub down” showers — shown being given to Silkwood herself and to a terrified co-worker (stage actress Sudie Bond) — remain among the most horrifying scenes in non-horror cinema.

Note: Click here to read a follow-up story in People Magazine about the various individuals in Silkwood’s real life.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood (nominated as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars)
  • Fine supporting performances
  • A powerful, often-scary, “based on real life” screenplay

Must See?
Yes, as an all-around good show, and for Streep’s Oscar-nominated performance.

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