Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Silkwood – Yes, Let’s Build More “Nucular” Power Plants Part I

Written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen
Directed by Mike Nichols

I have heard arguments lately for fewer regulations on corporations – that they will do the “right thing” and the regulations are often unnecessary and costly. Everyone who honestly believes that should view Silkwood. It’s based on actual events that took place and highlight what many of us fear – that corporations will do anything and everything they can for the sake of profit, even if it means destroying the people who work for them as well as our world.

Meryl Streep is Karen Silkwood. She’s a blue-collar worker in a nuclear plant building fuel rods in Oklahoma. One night after hearing about a truck that was “cooked” earlier in the day as she’s leaving she comes across a truck being disassembled on a secluded lot at the plant. One of the plant workers later tells her that they buried it somewhere.

When there’s a contamination incident in her section, she gets the blame because she wanted the weekend off. This is despite the fact that she had already switched shifts with someone. There are other incidents at the plant – a friend of hers gets “coked” and they don’t do a nasal smear to test if she’s been contaminated internally and just pronounce her “clean”.

Karen starts getting vocal about asking questions. What she’s been seeing is unnerving her a bit. After cleaning up one day following her shift, she’s suddenly setting off alarms. Everyone else walked out of that room clean, and she was clean just a few moments before, so what gives? She begins reading all of the literature they were given about plutonium from the Union and Washington. Maybe she and others can be faulted for not reading it before now, but you are dealing with largely uneducated, poor populations, during a time when people were desperate for jobs due to high unemployment. Is it better to starve or to take your chances working for a place that may or may not kill you? As an illustration of the times she grew up in, Karen recounts at one point how her mother scolded her for signing up for a science class over a home economics class, stating that she’ll find a good man in the home ec class (never mind that all the boys were taking the science classes…)

She was transferred after her exposure to the metallography. This means she has to be there three months before she can get any overtime. The whole transfer doesn’t make sense as her boss where she was had just been complaining how late they were on the contract – so why would they transfer out one of their workers?

In metallography, she catches her boss, Winston (portrayed by Craig T. Nelson), doctoring the Xrays they are taking of the fuel rods. This is to cover up any defects that are there (sure gives me confidence in the nuclear industry, let me tell ya!). Karen decides to get involved with the Union, which the corporation is trying to force out. Karen tells a hunky Union Representative, Paul Stone (portrayed by Ron Silver), about touching up the negatives of the fuel rods. Her boyfriend, Drew (portrayed by Kurt Russell), is jealous and her continued Union activity causes friction.

Slowly she loses those around her due to her Union activity. Her boyfriend leaves her. Her friends at the plant fear for their jobs more than they fear for their health due to exposure to plutonium. They just believe in a blind-faith sort of way that “the company” will take care of them and won’t let anything bad happen to them.

When she sets off contamination alarms a second time, it becomes hard to look at what’s happening to her as an accident. After she sets off alarms going into the plant, the question becomes, is someone at the company deliberately contaminating her as a way of threatening her? This also gives the company an excuse to search the home, as well as bagging up and hauling away everything in it.

She makes plans to talk to a reporter from the New York Times and bring evidence of some of the things she has seen to the reporter. While on the way to the meeting, she is killed in what is apparently a one-car accident.

Karen is an absentee parent. Her ex-husband and his new wife have custody of her three kids (whom she walked out on) and it’s a contentious relationship. She sees them once a month and he deliberately sabotages her visitations. She smokes pot with her live-in boyfriend and friends. She has an affair with one of the Union men from Washington while still living with her boyfriend. In other words, Karen is not some squeaky-clean, self-righteous employee.

On the other hand, I found her much more likable than Erin Brockovich, to which this film is often compared. The character of Karen Silkwood doesn’t seem to have a chip on her shoulder or set out to insult or alienate people around her.

Meryl Streep is great as Karen Silkwood. She’s who she is and would like to be someone better, but keeps making the poor choices that seemingly always end with her coming up short. Streep doesn’t try to play this for sympathy, but instead keeps the character as someone who’s made mistakes and continues to make them. Mike Nichols directed and kept it this way, which is good. The inclination of many would be to play up the good parts of the character while downplaying the bad points, but they are all laid out for all to see. She’s not such stereotypical “trailer trash” that’s been seen in other films that she’s become a caricature. Streep brings a realness to the character that I don’t think many actresses – especially those who don’t come from this background – can convey.

Kurt Russell is surprisingly good as Drew. He’s subdued in many ways. He loves Karen despite all that she’s done, both to him and to others. He plays Drew cool – there’s no flying off the handle and breaking things when he finds out about her affair with the Union man from Washington. Instead, he responds by quietly packing his bags and leaving. Russell conveys that Drew knows Karen all too well – just the way when he sees Karen in a picture with Paul Stone and he takes his arm from around her shoulders and says what he knows without him saying a word. Most of the time he looks worn – and it’s like everything is draining him in his life, both his woman and his job.

Cher is here in one of her first film roles as Karen’s best friend and roommate, Dolly, who also happens to be a lesbian and in love with Karen. She’s not so flamboyantly gay that you’d look at her and that’s the first thought that comes to mind. She’s just a “regular person” who is gay.

The story seems to be told on the presumption that the allegations Karen made are all true. This has been greatly disputed by the company she worked for, as well as some people in her own family. Her children are split as her one daughter believes she did what she did just to be a troublemaker, while the other two while acknowledging how shabbily she treated them, do assert that what she did was a good thing.

Some people have questioned the film’s accuracy – and speculated whether Karen was just a poor and disgruntled employee with an ax to grind. What no one can deny is the fact that the plant was shut down just a year after Karen’s death. Twenty-five years later, the grounds of the Cimarron, Oklahoma plant were still being decontaminated under the supervision of the Nuclear Regulatory Agency. This would seem to support many of the allegations she made about the improper handling of plutonium at the plant.

There was also evidence presented that the Kerr McGee Corporation had Karen Silkwood under surveillance. Her phone was tapped, which is why she made most of her phone calls from phone booths (something not made clear in the film). Her place of residence was contaminated. People have suggested she did it herself, but I just can’t see someone essentially sentencing themselves to a slow, painful death through exposure to plutonium.

Actual reports from the doctors at Los Alamos affirm her exposure, based on tissue samples taken after her death. Prior to her death, she was showing high levels of contamination in her urine that she had collected in her home while the samples collected at the physical plant didn’t show the same level of contamination (neither did the samples she would later give at Los Alamos). This would lead to the belief – asserted in the film – that someone had either contaminated the urine collection kits she used at home or contaminated the home itself.

There were dents found in the rear of her car, leading to speculation that she was run off the road. The documents she was supposed to be bringing to the reporter are never found. Her autopsy showed high levels of Quaaludes in her system. The question is were they ingested on her own or did someone slip them to her?

There was also plenty of reason for someone to want to kill her which was not shown in the film. Three months before her death she had been in contact with the Atomic Energy Commission about the safety violations at the plant, giving them a detailed list of the safety violations she knew about.

The movie has a real feel to it. It’s based on real events and it has the feeling that it really happened. I give a lot of credit to the actors as well as Director Mike Nichols for keeping the tone of the film down to earth, rather than making Karen Silkwood too heroic (like Erin Brockovich) or having the company painted completely as “the big evil villain” there’s plenty of blame to go around. Did the company kill Karen or have her killed? Did one of her co-workers do the job afraid of losing their own livelihood? Or was it just a tragic accident, possibly helped along by her use of drugs?

The world will probably never know. But I sure wouldn’t want to live near or work in a plant such as this, and I can’t imagine who would. It’s easy to say you would just find another job, but some people don’t have those choices. We are fast creating an underclass of people in this country who will be forced to take jobs like this in order to survive. To some that may be all right, as long as it’s not them or their family and they can turn on their lights and air conditioning as much as they want – cheaply.

7 replies »

  1. Hang on:

    ” largely uneducated, poor populations, during a time when people were desperate for jobs due to high unemployment. Is it better to starve or to take your chances working for a place that may or may not kill you?”

    I’d have imagined that workers in a Nuclear Plant would be educated, at least once they start working there, via OJT or night classes, rather than left to be uneducated, and minding the most dangerous farm there is?

    This is really scary!
    Ok, back to reading the rest of your review, sorry, Patti!

  2. Nice, Patti!

    “…forced to take jobs like this in order to survive. To some that may be all right, as long as it’s not them or their family and they can turn on their lights and air conditioning as much as they want – cheaply.”


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