Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Aug 24, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

When Oklahoma nuclear plant worker turned worker’s advocate Karen Silkwood died in a car accident in 1974, suspicions were raised as to whether or not it had really been an accident. Silkwood had gathered evidence showing that the Kerr-McGee plant she worked at had been cutting corners, putting their unsuspecting employees at risk of exposure to dangerous levels of radiation. After leaving a meeting, she allegedly fell asleep behind the wheel.  But in death, hers was an important story worthy of dramatization, and in 1983, Silkwood did just that.

For the Mike Nichols production, Meryl Streep was cast as Silkwood—an inspired choice, as she had started to shine as a leading actress in a diverse array of dramatic roles ranging from divorcee in Kramer vs. Kramer to a Holocaust survivor in The Holocaust and Sophie’s Choice. Thus, she brings to the role just the right amount of lower-class grit, gumption, and determination, and is able to slip in and capture Silkwood’s humorous side while never skimping on the gravity of it all. Playing alongside her as her lesbian best friend is Cher, in one of her first dramatic roles. Much like Streep, Cher too captures the Midwesterner personality in quite a convincing manner. It’s an unglamorous role to take, but she shines as Dolly Pelliker, a composite of real-life activist Dusty Ellis. Kurt Russel—another actor not known for straightforward dramatic work—plays Silkwood’s boyfriend, Drew Stephens. The film was also notable for being the first major motion picture script for writer Nora Ephron, who co-wrote it with Alice Arlen.

Silkwood traces Karen Silkwood’s discovery of the dangers of radiation poisoning after she returns from a weekend road trip to see her children, where she finds herself being blamed for a contamination incident that took place. Upset by the accusations, she learns about the union’s activity and gets involved. When she’s transferred from her processing job into another position, she discovers that Winston (Craig T. Nelson), the head of the office, has quietly been editing the photographs taken of radioactive samples in order to show them as being more structurally sound. She grows suspicious, and after befriending Paul Stone (Ron Silver), she begins to take diligent notes about her surroundings, alienating her friends and creating animosity toward her from the company. Shortly before her death, she’s poisoned in a suspicious manner; uranium was placed in her urine sample cup, resulting in Kerr-McGee having to enter her house and examining and quarantining everything within it. Undaunted, she contacts Stone to set up a meeting with a reporter from the New York Times, which is where she was heading when she had her fatal car accident. It’s to Nichols’s credit that he didn’t attempt to offer an opinion as to what happened that night; instead, he ends with a touching montage from the film and a note saying what happened after her death. Thus, viewers are left to form their own opinions about the accident.

Upon release, the film was a critical and commercial success; it was nominated for five Academy Awards—including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress—but did not win. Silkwood is a dark, moody, thought-provoking film that deserved its accolades and remains a haunting testimony of what happens when the little guy takes on the Goliath of industry.


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August 29th 2017

I was living in Oklahoma at the time this film was released. I didn’t see it at the theaters, but when it hit HBO, I enjoyed it. The conpiracy theories around her death were what piqued my interest. What I find hard to believe now is that it took almost a decade after her death to make this film.

I haven’t seen this movie in a while and my wife has yet to see it. I might make this DVD one we’ll watch together. Great story. Great film. Just need to see that ending again to read about the aftermath. That’s the one thing I can’t remember :)

h isam
September 18th 2017

an inspiring article, I am very happy to read it. thank you