Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
An absorbing story about the known facts around a real scandal within the nuclear power
industry, Silkwood doesn't conclude that Karen Silkwood was murdered for blowing
the whistle on gross safety violations. But it does say a lot about the nuke industry in
general, and leaves us with the definite feeling that the public good is not served when
private companies are in charge of dangerous materials when trying to maximize profits.
Mike Nichols' deft direction won the film five Oscar nominations.
Oklahomans Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep) and Drew Stephens (Kurt Russell) work
together at a nuclear materials facility and rent a house in a loose arrangement with Dolly
Pelliker (Cher). Karen's questionable (by local standards) morals, flippant tongue and
sometimes flaky attitude amuse her workmates but win her few steady friends. She becomes aware
of possible safety violations at the plant at about the same time she grows active in the union,
an activity that raises the suspicion of her employers. Karen takes a trip to Washington on
Union business, meeting with Paul Stone (Ron Silver) and other Union officials who encourage
her to make sacrifices for a 'greater moral imperative.' This boils down to snooping for evidence
at the factory. She becomes a pariah to her workmates, who feel their jobs are in jeopardy, but
her employers may be harboring even darker plans for her.
Karen Silkwood isn't exactly the perfect poster girl for the anti-nuke cause. When she died in an
auto accident (-?), traces of drugs and alcohol were found (-or planted) in her body.
Her lifestyle would hardly stand close examination from bluenoses looking for moral disqualifications.
Silkwood ends up being more about powerless working Americans, the blue collar force that
mans those factories and facilities still remaining in the U.S.. Hired for as little as possible and badgered by
a tough middle management system that considers them lucky to have any kind of a job,
workers across the country face the same problems: pay that barely keeps clothes on one's back and
demands for employee loyalty that go unreciprocated. Most Americans work in jobs they don't like,
feeling powerless to abandon what little seniority they've earned for at best iffy prospects
elsewhere. No wonder Americans look to entertainment fantasy for illusions of pride and power.
Silkwood tells the story of three roommates, two sharing a relationship and a third who'd
like to be in a same-sex relationship with one of the other two. It is an acting marvel. Kurt Russell
provides excellent support for Meryl Streep's convincingly lowbrow Karen, a minimally skilled
laborer who has difficulty applying herself to life; her ex-husband is making it hard
to see her two kids. Karen jokes with the boys at work and scandalizes the snippy born-agains with
her bad language and provocative attitude; when a contamination occurs,
all assume she caused it to get a weekend off work.
Cher's secondary role posits her as an aimless and alienated woman who is
neither glamorous nor sings. She brings her girlfriend home to stay on as a roommate - a morturary
beautician. Only director
Nichols' high wattage rating accounts for keeping a personality like Cher
in balance and it benefits the film greatly - what could have been three attention-begging star turns
shapes up as a good acting trio convincingly portraying people at the lower end of the social scale.
What Karen Silkwood lacks most are survival skills. When Drew senses bad things a' coming, he moves
on, trading nuke work for the safer line of mechanics. After reading the government info declaring
that there are no 'acceptable' levels of human contamination, I think I'd be looking into any
line of work. It's not as if Karen and her workmates are getting hazard pay. The old biddy who snipes at
Karen's 'kind of sex' immediately becomes sympathetic when she's exposed to some nuclear material.
When the same thing later happens to Karen, the film leaves the door open for any number of
plots. Is a co-worker punishing Karen's sinfulness by purposely contaminating her? Is her
supervisor (Craig T. Nelson as a harassing co-worker) getting back at her for knowing about his
doctoring of fuel rod inspection photos? Or, later on, is someone protecting company interests
with a combo murder-smear campaign. 1
Silkwood wisely avoids becoming a paranoid conspiracy. The company is
doggedly venal about protecting its interests while feigning concern for its workers, but how Karen
was eventually poisoned is unclear. It's too easy to imagine an 'alternate Karen': a bitter Union
gadfly who does grossly irresponsible things because she's emotionally disturbed. Unfortunately for
those seeking ammunition against the nuke industry, that interpretation seems equally as credible
as Karen being murdered while en route to slip incriminating evidence into the hands of a Union
Big Unions aren't exactly lauded either. The Washington reps are eager to urge the guileless Karen
into sticking her neck out for their aims, and what conclusions can we make when
Karen sleeps with another Union rep - is it evidence of more Silkwood flakiness, or more
exploitation by the Union?
The story stays with Karen's perspective, sketching her relative naiveté as she asks how much
airline meals cost or snoops in plain sight of her coworkers, thinking somehow that her efforts won't be
interdicted. She's the plain-wrap alternative to the success story of Erin Brockovich ...
to go up against the big boys one needs allies, and some smarts don't hurt either. There are also
parallels to Akira Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well, and to
Cutter's Way. Paranoid conspiracies are very difficult to perceive from the inside, and
disaffected societal dropouts don't usually have the skillset needed to oppose them. I suppose it all
goes back to Hamlet; if Karen Silkwood really was the victim of some imagined Evil Big
Business, I can't see her liking this movie portrayal's of her as a confused victim.
Excellent production values evoke what it means to drive a ratty car and live in a rented house listening
to your roommates make love next door (just like college, I guess). Nichols does a good job of
expressing the unholy panic of setting off a contamination alarm and being hustled into a
decontamination shower for a brutal stiff-brushing. The official big boys of nuclear science
carefully give results
of Karen's condition in such a way that renders qualification meaningless; their poker faces when
calmly saying that their error margin is 300% is scarier than the assurances of company medic
Charles Hallahan. He might at least care personally. Fresh John Carpenter's The Thing,
Hallahan is well-chosen to make us feel insecure.
Also slipping into the show for smaller parts are Diana Scarwid, Fred Ward (as a deadpan Indian who
likes to tell demeaning Indian jokes), Bruce McGill and David Strathairn.
MGM's DVD is just okay. The picture looks decent and is at least letterboxed, but lacks 16:9
enhancement, DVD's biggest advantage over VHS. This disc is not necessarily more evidence of MGM's
drift toward the abandonment of enhancement for library titles. Silkwood is an acquisition
from ABC Motion Pictures, and the format may have been dictated by available elements, or contracts.
English, French and Spanish subs are included, along with a provocative
trailer. I'm not suggesting that I could come up with a better alternative, but the cover illustration
showing our three leads embracing with a nuclear cooling tower in the background is pretty lame.
There are no reactors in the movie, and the composite looks like it should be titled 'Three movie stars
at 3 Mile Island.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 22, 2003
1. In 1983, Silkwood
made me think of my experience with "X"'s frozen food a couple of years before. I purchased a
couple of frozen dinners, cooked and ate them the same evening. We were violently stomach-ill the
entire night, something that rarely happens to us. I called "X"'s the next day and we were
visited by an authoritative man who asked questions designed to imply that I wasn't qualified to
determine that the dinners were the cause of our sickness. He took what remained of the dinners (the
mostly empty foil shells) and had us sign a paper that he had been there. When we looked at the papers,
they had some text exonerating the "X" company from any wrongdoing. It was clear that
our call to tell the company that there were problems with their frozen food had been answered with a
damage control mission to squelch potential troublemakers. I'm sure the collected frozen food went
right into the trash, happily neutralized as possible evidence against them. Was I paranoid to
think these thoughts? Are companies like "X" harassed by troublemaking chislers enough to justify
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson