Karen Silkwood’s death in a 1974 car crash remains mysterious and controversial. A worker at the Kerr-McGee nuclear plant in Crescent, Okla., she had been on her way,
with what she had said was some incriminating evidence against the company, to meet a New York Times reporter. Apparently, she had in her possession the company’s touched-up negatives of test photographs of plutonium fuel rods (meant to be used in a breeder reactor) which proved that the welding was unsafe. A leak from the reactor, the union claimed, could have resulted in millions of deaths by radiation contamination. The evidence was not found in the car wreck, although Kerr-McGee closed down the plant a year later after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission demanded safety improvements. Since that time, a conspiracy theory that the company was responsible for her death has gained considerable momentum. But, despite the material and the exceptional cast, led by Meryl Streep, Silkwood is strangely unmoving.
Seldom has a movie revealing so much about a single character seemed so distant from its audience. The script, by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen, is a series of impressions about Silkwood, a gumchewing, chain-smoking, devil-may-care woman. She mooches food from her coworkers in the plant cafeteria and lives with her boyfriend, Drew Stephens (Kurt Russell), in her best friend’s
ramshackle house. She is unconventional enough that the friend, Dolly (Cher), is a lesbian; as a sassy joke she is not above exposing one of her breasts to a leering male co-worker. Smart but not intellectual by any means, she was not the self-effacing martyr that many might consider her to be. Her zealousness in exposing'the dangers of the plant arose from a simple motivation: she was fighting for her life.
When workers at Kerr-McGee came into contact with a leak, their coworkers had to rush them to the showers for decontamination, which involved a scrubbing-down that nearly tore away the skin. After her third scrub-down (they are the most gruelling scenes in Silkwood) she was emo-
tionally shattered; by that time, Silkwood was acutely aware of the mortal danger in working there. The thought of “being married to cancer” through the slightest exposure to plutonium began to pervade her existence. Her concern led to a devoted involvement with the union. That caused her nervous coworkers to ostracize her and, finally, Drew to sever their relationship. She became obsessive and terrified.
Meryl Streep uncannily captures Silkwood’s transformation from naïveté and indifference. She seems to invade the character. More than ever before, she acts with her body: her walk is brisk and commanding, and the various ways she holds her cigarette tell more about Silkwood’s moods than any line of
dialogue could. Streep holds nothing back, but director Mike Nichols does, keeping her in long shot when the audience needs to feel physically close to her. There are so many long shots in Silkwood (which will surely look practically lost on television) that the quasi-documentary approach kills the drama. In fact, in one of the few moving scenes the camera does get close to its subject—when Drew is about to leave Silkwood and walks back from his car to say to her, “I can’t stay away from you.” For a few seconds the camera allows the storm of emotions in Streep’s face to overtake the viewer. Briefly, Silkwood comes alive.
There is much in Silkwood that is tender, especially the scenes between Dolly and Silkwood, for whom Dolly has always borne a painful, unrequited love. As well, the scenes with Russell and Streep as she talks about her parents are poignant and beautifully played; but those are also victims of the keepyour-distance school of filmmaking. Perhaps Nichols was afraid to sentimentalize the material; however, the way he handles his actors suggests that they are plutonium.
A cold experience, Silkwood is still a disturbing one for moviegoers who must, by now, dread the possibilities
in a nuclear age. In trying to be objective about the Silkwood case, the director and the screenwriters let the viewers draw their own conclusions. Yet there is a lack of commitment—and passion—in how they portray the heroine. It is as though her death were a curiosity. In Silkwood the literal truth overshadows dramatic urgency to the degree that it seems a form of artistic cowardice.
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