“I think you’d do just about anything to shut down this plant.”
A nuclear factory employee named Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep) is distressed to learn that her company may be engaging in less-than-safe practices — but as she becomes more active in her local union, she finds herself increasingly isolated from her co-workers, who fear loss of their jobs if the factory shuts down.
Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated performance firmly grounds this disturbing biopic about labor union activist Karen Silkwood, whose mysterious death in a car accident while on her way to meet with a reporter remains one of the most notorious instances of “whistle blowers” meeting an untimely demise. Given that viewers know the outcome of this real-life tragedy in advance, director Mike Nichols (working from a script by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen) wisely frames his story as both an ethnographic look at Silkwood’s working-class existence — she’s estranged from her kids, living with her boyfriend (Kurt Russell) and lesbian friend (Cher) — and as an unsolved mystery story (is someone contaminating Silkwood on purpose?). Streep, naturally, is phenomenal in the title role, providing a nuanced portrayal of a woman who’s both easy to like (she’s amiable and free-spirited) and easy to hate (she’s mildly manipulative and not easily deterred). What’s most fascinating about her story — other than seeing how close-to-the-edge she and her co-workers live on a daily basis, given the dangerous work they’re doing — is watching Silkwood’s consciousness slowly growing, as she uncovers more and more instances of suspiciously neglectful and/or deceitful behavior on the part of her employers. The “scrub down” showers — shown being given to Silkwood herself and to a terrified co-worker (stage actress Sudie Bond) — remain among the most horrifying scenes in non-horror cinema.
Note: Click here to read a follow-up story in People Magazine about the various individuals in Silkwood’s real life.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood (nominated as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars)
- Fine supporting performances
- A powerful, often-scary, “based on real life” screenplay
Yes, as an all-around good show, and for Streep’s Oscar-nominated performance.