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SILKWOOD (director: Mike Nichols; screenwriters: Nora Ephron/ Alice Arlen; cinematographer: Miroslav Ondricek; editor: Sam O’Steen; music: Georges Delerue; cast: Meryl Streep (Karen Silkwood), Kurt Russell (Drew Stephens), Cher (Dolly Pelliker), Craig T. Nelson (Winston), Diana Scarwid (Angela, lesbian lover of Dolly), Fred Ward (Morgan), Ron Silver (Paul Stone); Runtime: 128; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Buzz Hirsch/Larry Cano; Paramount Home Entertainment; 1983)
“Seemingly better suited for a documentary.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A true story (more or less) on nuclear materials factory worker Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep), who mysteriously died in 1974 in an auto accident on her way to meet New York Times reporter David Burnham to show evidence gathered in regards to workplace safety violations and cover-ups. Director Mike Nichols (“Wolf”/”Postcards from the Edge”/”Heartburn”) and writers Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen can’t get much drama out of this story, except through artificial means, a story that’s seemingly better suited for a documentary.

The 28-year-old Karen is the self-assured ‘ordinary’ worker and union activist at the Kerr-McGee nuclear processing plant in Cimarron, Oklahoma, who lives with her co-worker boyfriend Drew (Kurt Russell) and lesbian friend Dolly (Cher). The hard working and hard drinking tough cookie has a humdrum job but one perilous to her health because of radiation contamination from plutonium. When X-ray’s show Karen has been contaminated, she moves to get proof over management’s neglect regarding safety measures at the plant to present to her union. Even when her personal life comes unglued over the breakup with Drew, who is tired of her activism, Karen continues her spying. The film clearly implies that Karen was most likely silenced for being a whistle-blower, though some critics maintain her death was accidental and that she was an alcoholic and under the influence of tranquilizers when behind the wheel. Later, the nuclear company paid her family a large settlement for the contamination when they filed a civil-law suit and the case was settled out of court.

Though the subject matter has value—there’s little to learn here that isn’t obvious, the presentation failed emotionally to connect with this viewer and there’s a certain smugness and false artistry about this characterization that left me turned off to a project that I normally would be sympathetic to. Also, I was never convinced by Streep’s performance that she inhabited the flawed title character (someone who had three children by a common-law husband and for most of her life was aimless).


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”