On 13 November 1974, Karen Silkwood, a 28-year-old employee of the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant near Crescent, Oklahoma, died mysteriously in an automobile accident.
She was on her way to a secret rendezvous with a newspaper reporter to spill the beans about safety violations at the plant, which had led to the radiation poisoning of several workers, including herself.
The documentary evidence in her possession was never found, the case was
never solved, and Karen Silkwood became a martyr – the Joan of Arc of the antinuclear movement.
Since Karen Silkwood has become a great heroine to feminists and liberals – a symbol of what an insignificant person with no money, power or education can accomplish in the face of adversity – it’s only logical that the screenplay for Silkwood was written by the arch-feminists Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen.
But in the final tally, it must be asked: What did she really accomplish after all? Wasn’t she the ultimate victim – used by men, sabotaged by her co-workers, possibly even contaminated beyond all hope of normal recovery by plutonium placed in a factory sandwich, and eventually murdered for her bravery and commitment?
Like the ignorant mill worker Sally Field played in Norma Rae, Karen Silkwood learned the hard way about unions, management, and the rights of the individual. She wanted to change things.
Posthumously, the Silkwood estate sued Kerr-McGee and the plant was eventually shut down.
But Silkwood concerns itself with the personal side of the story – and everyone responsible must be congratulated on the restraint and honesty with which the details are processed. Not only is Karen Silkwood not romanticised as a saint, but the way Meryl Streep plays her, she’s a rather trashy piece of work into the bargain.
Like all Meryl Streep creations, the character is a bit too calculatedly studied to be totally real, but the portrait is a fascinating combination of southern bubble-brain, raw nerve, and true grit.
Streep’s Silkwood is an ordinary Texas girl who leaves her three kids with her common-law husband to grow up in the shadow of pumping oil wells while she works in a factory in another state.
Blowing bubble gum while she handles plutonium oxide, oblivious to the dangers of radiation poisoning, driving home in the rain in her filthy little two-door Honda to the ramshackle house she shares with her boyfriend Drew (Kurt Russell) and her lesbian chum (Cher), Streep works hard to establish the unexceptional everydayness of Karen Silkwood.
Eventually, she turns from a promiscuous working-class drone in mini skirts, earrings, and cowboy boots to a mature woman – savvy, concerned, and alive.
She reads up on the mental and physical defects plutonium radiation can cause, as well as the genetic damage and eventual cancer. She gets involved in union politics, flying to Washington for meetings with the Atomic Energy Commission.
Finally, she even spies on the plant and its employees for evidence of wrongdoing in the area of job protection, health precautions, and safety measures, stealing X rays from the files and endangering her own life.
Her friends warned her, and after she started getting poisoned by the people in her own plant, why didn’t she see the writing on the wall?
There are many unanswered questions . . .
Craig T. Nelson
E. Katherine Kerr