A corporate whistleblower’s daily life lends dimension to the fact-based Silkwood
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“On November 13, 1974, Karen Silkwood, an employee of a nuclear facility, left to meet with a reporter from the New York Times,” the tagline informs us. “She never got there.” Meanwhile, the poster image depicts one of the last moments of her life, showing her glancing in alarm at her rearview mirror as the headlights of a car behind her loom menacingly from the darkness. Nobody has ever been able to prove that Silkwood was murdered, but 1983’s Silkwood, directed by Mike Nichols from a script penned by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen, strongly suggests that she paid the ultimate price for her decision to rat on her employer, Kerr-McGee (acquired and dissolved in 2006 by Anadarko Petroleum). Convinced that she and her fellow workers were being wantonly endangered by the company in an effort to cut costs, Silkwood, a union rep, amassed evidence of defective fuel rods and falsified inspection reports—evidence that she reportedly had with her when she got in the car, but which wasn’t found at the scene of the accident.
All of this suggests a taut industrial thriller, and Silkwood delivers on that score to a moderate extent (though it’s hampered by the fact that nobody really knows what happened). What makes the film truly memorable, however, isn’t its protagonist’s noble crusade so much as the mundane details of her daily life, as shared with her oft-frustrated boyfriend (Kurt Russell), her lesbian roommate (Cher, in the role that briefly established her as a serious actress), and a slew of credibly working-class coworkers. Meryl Streep, who had just won a second Oscar for Sophie’s Choice, turns in one of her earthiest, least affected performances, making Karen Silkwood a prickly personality much too complex for simple martyrdom. And the script, deftly realized by Nichols with a great deal of attention to cramped interiors and dusty exteriors, gives arguments about visitation rights (her ex-husband has custody of their three kids) equal weight with panicky depictions of plutonium contamination. It’s the rare movie about a whistleblower that acknowledges one doesn’t constantly have the whistle in one’s mouth.
Availability: MGM released a DVD that can be rented from Netflix, Blockbuster, and other retailers.