Directed By: Mike Nichols
Starring: Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, Cher
Tag line: "On November 13, 1974, Karen Silkwood, an employee of a nuclear facility, left to meet with a reporter from the New York Times. She never got there"
Trivia: The scene where Karen sets off the radiation alarms actually happened. Her level of contamination was forty times the safe limit
For all intents and purposes, Silkwood was the movie that introduced me to Meryl Streep. Sure, I’d seen her in The Deer Hunter and Kramer vs. Kramer, but in somewhat limited roles. Silkwood shined a spotlight directly on her, helping me understand, for the first time, why she was being touted as the generation’s finest actress.
Based on actual events, Silkwood tells the story of Karen Silkwood (Streep), a worker at the Oklahoma-based Kerr-McGee nuclear plant who shared a house with her boyfriend Drew (Kurt Russell), and lesbian friend Dolly (Cher), both of whom were also co-workers. Karen’s job was a dangerous one, requiring her to handle plutonium on a daily basis, and sure enough, she was eventually diagnosed with radiation poisoning. Prompted by her union reps, Karen gathered evidence suggesting Kerr-McGee was guilty of safety violations, and despite the fact her investigation angered many friends and co-workers, she refused to back down. One evening, Karen arranged to meet a reporter from The New York Times, to reveal what she’d discovered. But she never made that meeting. The next day, Karen's car was found in a ditch along the side of the road, her lifeless body still behind the wheel. It looked like a simple, tragic accident, except for one tiny detail: all of her research had disappeared.
What struck me the first time I saw Silkwood was that its title character was nothing at all like the movie heroines I’d grown up with. A chain smoker and binge drinker, Karen abandoned her three children to move in with Drew, and there are hints dropped throughout the film suggesting she slept around (when Karen complains she might get raped, Dolly replies “Who’s gonna rape you that you ain’t already fucked?”). In life, Karen Silkwood was a mess, and Streep allows all of the character’s rough edges to show through in her performance, never once trying to gloss over them.
Director Mike Nichols managed to get a lot out of his supporting cast as well, most notably Cher, who received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. But it was Streep’s gutsy, honest portrayal that turned what could have been a run-of-the-mill “message movie”, decrying the dangers of nuclear power (a prime target in the 1980s) or the callousness of corporate America, into an exposé of a deeply flawed individual who, for once in her life, was trying to do something right.