Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Mike Nichols|
|Produced by||Michael Hausman|
|Written by||Nora Ephron|
|Music by||Georges Delerue|
|Edited by||Sam O'Steen|
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
|Box office||$35.6 million|
Silkwood is a 1983 American biographical drama film directed by Mike Nichols and starring Meryl Streep, Cher and Kurt Russell. The screenplay by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen was inspired by the life of Karen Silkwood. Silkwood was a nuclear whistleblower and a labor union activist who died in a car accident while investigating alleged wrongdoing at the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant where she worked. In real life, her death gave rise to a 1979 lawsuit, Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee, led by attorney Gerry Spence. The jury rendered its verdict of $10 million in damages to be paid to the Silkwood estate (her children), the largest amount in damages ever awarded for that kind of case at the time. The Silkwood estate eventually settled for $1.3 million.
Silkwood was shot largely in both New Mexico and Texas on a budget of $10 million. Factual accuracy was maintained throughout the script, with some incidents exactly parallel to the real-life experiences of Karen Silkwood. One scene in particular involved the activation of a radiation alarm at the plant. Silkwood herself had forty times the legal limit of radiation in her system. Streep had just finished filming Sophie's Choice (1982) when production began. The film also marked a departure for some of its stars: it is noted for being one of the first "serious" works of Cher, who had been previously known mostly for her singing, and for Russell, who was at the time widely known for his work in the action genre.
The film received positive reviews and was a box office success, with particular attention focused on the performances by the three leads. At the 56th Academy Awards, Silkwood received five nominations in total, including Streep for Best Actress, Cher for Best Supporting Actress, Nichols for Best Director. After being out of print on DVD in the United States, the film was released on Blu-ray on July 25, 2017.
Karen Silkwood, a worker at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site (near Crescent, Oklahoma), shares a ramshackle house with two co-workers, her boyfriend Drew Stephens and her lesbian friend Dolly Pelliker. She makes plutonium fuel rods for nuclear reactors, where she deals with the threat of exposure to radiation. She has become a union activist, concerned that corporate practices may adversely affect the health of workers. She is also engaged in a conflict with her former common-law husband in an effort to have more time with their three children.
Because the plant has fallen behind on a major contract—ostensibly to provide fuel rods for a breeder reactor at the Hanford Site—employees are required to work long hours of overtime. She believes that managers are falsifying safety reports and cutting corners wherever possible, risking the welfare of the personnel. Karen approaches the union with her concerns and becomes active in lobbying for safeguards. She travels to Washington, D.C. to testify before the Atomic Energy Commission. She interacts with union officials who appear to be more interested in the publicity she is generating than her welfare and that of her co-workers.
When Silkwood and other workers become contaminated by radiation, plant officials try to blame her for the incident. When she discovers that negatives of photographs of faulty fuel rods have been retouched and records of inadequate safety measures have been altered, she decides to conduct an investigation of her own. Complications arise in her personal life when Angela, a funeral parlor beautician, joins the household as Dolly's lover. Unable to deal with Silkwood's obsession with gathering evidence, Drew moves out.
Once she feels she has gathered sufficient documentation, Silkwood contacts a reporter from The New York Times and arranges a nighttime meeting. In the film's final moments, the scene fades out as Silkwood, on her way to the meeting, sees approaching headlights in her rear-view mirror, which draw up so close that they blind her and make her unable to watch the road ahead. The scene fades in on the aftermath of her fatal one-car crash.
- Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood
- Kurt Russell as Drew Stephens
- Cher as Dolly Pelliker
- Craig T. Nelson as Winston
- Fred Ward as Morgan
- Diana Scarwid as Angela
- Ron Silver as Paul Stone
- Josef Sommer as Max Richter
- Charles Hallahan as Earl Lapin
- Sudie Bond as Thelma Rice
- Henderson Forsythe as Quincy Bissell
- Bruce McGill as Mace Hurley
- David Strathairn as Wesley
- M. Emmet Walsh as Walt Yarborough
- Ray Baker as Pete Dawson
- Will Patton as Joe
- E. Katherine Kerr as Gilda Schultz
- J.C. Quinn as Curtis Schultz
The film was shot on location in Albuquerque and Los Alamos in New Mexico, and Dallas, Howe, Texas City, and Tom Bean in Texas. Filming lasted from September 7, 1982 to November 26, 1982. Arthur Hirsch and Larry Cano were the producers of the film and received Executive Producer credits. They began working on the movie while graduate film students at UCLA. Their involvement in the making of Silkwood set a precedent in the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the protection under the First Amendment of confidential sources for film-makers, as is done for journalists.
Silkwood received a positive critical response. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called the film "a precisely visualized, highly emotional melodrama that's going to raise a lot of hackles" and "a very moving work." He added, "There are, however, problems, not unlike those faced by Costa-Gavras in his State of Siege and Missing, and they are major. Mr. Nichols and his writers ... have attempted to impose a shape on a real-life story that, even as they present it, has no easily verifiable shape. We are drawn into the story of Karen Silkwood by the absolute accuracy and unexpected sweetness of its Middle American details and then, near the end, abandoned by a film whose images say one thing and whose final credit card another. The muddle of fact, fiction and speculation almost, though not quite, denies the artistry of all that's gone before." He concluded, "I realize that films shouldn't be judged in bits and pieces, but it's difficult not to see Silkwood in that way. For most of its running time it is so convincing—and so sure of itself—that it seems a particular waste when it goes dangerously wrong. It's like watching a skydiver execute all sorts of graceful, breathtaking turns, as he appears to ignore gravity and fly on his own, only to have him smash to earth when the chute doesn't open."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times rated the film four stars and commented, "It's a little amazing that established movie stars like Streep, Russell and Cher could disappear so completely into the everyday lives of these characters."
David Sterritt of The Christian Science Monitor called the film "a fine example of Hollywood's love-hate attitude toward timely and controversial subject matter." He continued, "The movie sides with Silkwood as a character, playing up her spunk and courage while casting wry, sidelong glances at her failings. When it comes to the issues connected with her, though, the filmmakers slip and slide around, providing an escape hatch ... for every position and opinion they offer. This makes the movie less polemical than it might have been, and a lot more wishy-washy ... This is too bad, because on other levels Silkwood is a strong and imaginative film. Meryl Streep gives the year's most astounding performance by an actress, adding vigor and complexity to almost every scene with her endlessly inventive portrayal of the eccentric heroine. The supporting players skillfully follow her lead."
The film holds a 75% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 28 reviews with the consensus: "Silkwood seethes with real-life rage -- but backs it up with compelling characters and trenchant observations." It also holds a 64/100 on Metacritic.
The film opened on a limited release in 257 theaters in the United States on December 14, 1983. It grossed $1,218,322 on its opening weekend, ranking #12 at the box office. The film opened widely on January 27, 1984 during which, in its seventh week of release, it had expanded to 816 screens and reached #1. It eventually earned $35,615,609 in the U.S. and Canada.
Awards and nominations
Anchor Bay Entertainment released the film on DVD in Region 1 on June 15, 1999. Viewers had the option of anamorphic widescreen or fullscreen formats. The Anchor Bay release is long out of print. A Region 2 DVD was released by PT Video on April 8, 2002. A second Region 1 DVD was released by MGM Home Entertainment on October 7, 2003 and a Region 4 DVD was released on October 14, 2004 by MRA Entertainment. It is in anamorphic widescreen format with subtitles in English, Spanish, and French.
- Karen Silkwood
- The China Syndrome
- List of nuclear whistleblowers
- Nuclear power
- Nuclear fuel
- Nuclear fuel cycle
- Nuclear security
- Nuclear contamination
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