- Movie Rating -

Silkwood (1983)

| December 14, 1983

I lived the early years of my life in Arkansas and my family often took road trips that took us past the Nuclear Power Plant in Russellville with its singular hyperboloid cooling tower looming over the tree-line and belching smoke (steam, I later learned) into the air.   It had been engrained into my head, mostly through television, that such facilities were dangerous.  Why else would hippies protest such a thing?

I was happy that I didn’t live near the place but I always wondered about the people who had to work there.  Weren’t they concerned about the radiation?  An explosion perhaps?  Who are these people?  Why do they work there?  What are their concerns?

Silkwood, I was pleased to discover, is not as much about the dangers of nuclear fission but about the people who work in a plant like the one that I saw as a kid – it’s more Norma Rae than The China Syndrome.  Yes, this is the true story of Karen Silkwood, an employee at Ker-McGee’s Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site in Crescent, Oklahoma who died in a suspicious automobile accident on November 13, 1974 as she was about the blow the whistle to a New York Times reporter about unsafe working conditions involving the handling of plutonium at the plant.   Her evidence showed that x-rays taken of the fuel rods had been doctored to make them seem stronger than they really were.

That’s really the overriding story but the heart of the movie is the deadening of the American worker, low-income people who are forced to keep working in such a plant their entire lives until they drop dead.  Karen, played in a beautifully earthy performance by Meryl Streep, disappears into this world.  She is part of the tapestry, unnoticed and without any real distinction.  She comes in, she punches her time card and she goes to work.  Time and tide have no real meaning here because once they leave in the evening, they’re back here in the morning to start the same grind all over again.

Karen’s job is to manufacture MOX fuel rods for the nuclear reactor, a job to which she is constantly under threat of exposure to radiation.  Several incidents at the plant convince her that something may not be right here.  The plant is behind on an important contract and has been cutting corners and the workers are being made to work overtime.  She comes to realize that the health and safety of she and her fellow workers is being overlooked.  Approaching the union about the problem she is given a trip to Washington to testify before the Atomic Energy Commission but they are more concerned about the publicity than about the welfare of the workers.

All of this, I expected.  I expected to see a one-woman crusade against an immobile system of men in three-piece suits using $10 words to protect their image and their jobs.  But what I didn’t expect were the details of Karen’s homelife.  She lives in a run-down house with her friend Dolly (Cher) and her on-again-off-again boyfriend (Kurt Russell).  The story of the mishandling of safety precautions at the plant makes Silkwood an important film; the scenes of her homelife make it unique. 

I didn’t expect this extra layer.  I didn’t expect the small tiny details of her personal life way from the things going on at the plant.  It never feels like we are watching dressed-down movie stars.  They feel so natural to this rustic setting that I could believe that they’d been there for years.  In a lot of ways, they represent the low-income workers not just at Ker-McGee but those who work in textiles, production plants, or any industry that potentially exploits its workers and sees them less as people and more as fixtures.  This is an important film about an important crusader fighting for the little guy, but is also an inclusive study about the American worker.  This is a special film.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1983) View IMDB Filed in: Drama