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MGM Home Entertainment
1983 / color / 1:85 flat letterbox / 131 min. / Street Date October 7, 2003 / 14.95
Starring Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, Cher, Craig T. Nelson, Diana Scarwid, Fred Ward, Ron Silver, Charles Hallahan
Cinematography Miroslav Ondrícek
Production Designer Patrizia von Brandenstein
Art Direction Richard D. James
Film Editor Sam O'Steen
Original Music Georges Delerue
Written by Alice Arlen and Nora Ephron
Produced by Larry Cano, Michael Hausman, Buzz Hirsch, Mike Nichols
Directed by Mike Nichols

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 available alternate 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 representative.

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, Silkwood rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
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 such measures?

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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