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For a while, Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep) was content working for Kerr-McGee's Plutonium Recycling Facility in Oklahoma and enjoying a loving relationship with young co-worker Drew Stephens (Kurt Russell). At the plant, there were risks in handling volatile radio-active materials, but as long as safety procedures were adhered to there wasn't a problem. Except that Kerr-McGee, in its rush to fill orders, became sloppy and Karen was one of those contaminated - or "cooked." Now dedicated to forcing her employers to lift their game, Karen gathers evidence of malpractice for the union, making her unpopular with workers who feared for their jobs. On her way to present her findings to a New York Times reporter, Karen is killed in a car crash that raises suspicions.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
Hollywood's last great heroine of the people was Erin Brockovich who proved that a power company had caused devastating illness within a small California community after polluting the water and had tried to cover it up. Brockovich lived to tell the tale, but Karen Silkwood, who threatened to blow the whistle on safety and product violations at an Oklahoma plutonium plant, did not.

Like Brockovich, the gum-chewing, chain-smoking Silkwood was no saint. Having surrendered her three children to her common law husband in Texas, she moved to the south-west where she shacked-up with boyfriend Drew and her lesbian friend Dolly (Cher). She popped pills and drank heavily. She liked to flirt with colleagues and flashed her boobs to show what a free-spirit she was. But Karen was herself sloppy when it came to observing simple safety procedures that would alert her to any radiation exposure in the plutonium lab. When the alarm bells rang she knew that it meant being stripped naked for a painful scrub down in the showers which left her skin red raw with no guarantee that she would be clean of contamination.

When Karen decided to take positive action against Kerr-McGee over their dubious ethics she was ostracised by co-workers and management, who feared for their jobs if the plant was forced to shut down. After changing her spots so stunningly from the French Lieutenant's Woman to become the tragic Auschwitz survivor of Sophie's Choice, no-one should have doubted Meryl Streep's ability to segue so smoothly into the part of a working-class pleb who develops a conscience when she realises her life and the lives of others are at risk.

It's another awesome portrayal from the world's most awarded actress who lets rip with a range of emotions from happiness to heartache, fortitude and fear, to name but a few. Both she and Cher were Oscar nominated, but it's difficult to comprehend how Cher deserved her nod. More on the periphery of the main story than being a part of it, she does little more than react to Streep and Russell, who reveals a sensitivity that his work in action flicks too rarely demanded. By fostering a sense of family both in and out of the workplace, Nichols humanises Silkwood's story but then loses sight of the bigger picture. We're dealing with nothing less than negligence on a nuclear scale here and a mysterious death which the conspiracy theorists insist was murder; that persons unknown slammed Karen's car off the road into a concrete culvert and, over her dead body, stole the evidence she was set to present to the New York Times. Cher's relationship with her mortician lover (Diana Scarwid) is about as relevant to this as a fly speck on a football field and the heart to hearts between the live-ins on the back-porch are bum-numbingly excessive. It takes Bruce McGill and Craig T. Nelson as the slimy company heavies to raise the interest and tension to a level far greater than anything Cher can muster. You believe them capable of the worst, but in the end, Karen Silkwood had few friends.

A post-script tells us the facts as they were known then: that no documents were found at the crash-site and that "an autopsy revealed a high level of tranquiliser and some alcohol in her bloodstream." Thirty years after her death we are hardly the wiser but no less sceptical. A crash expert reported that there was "enough circumstantial evidence" to indicate that Karen's car "was struck by an unknown vehicle" and his theory was supported by skid marks and extraneous damage to the car. It was revealed that the Oklahoma police had electronically "bugged" Karen for the two years she worked for Kerr-McGee. The plant was closed one year after she was killed and an inquiry into the circumstances of her death was expeditiously shut down. Streep sings Amazing Grace as an epitaph over the end credits: "I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see."

Published October 14, 2004

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(US, 1983)

CAST: Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, Cher, Craig T. Nelson

DIRECTOR: Mike Nichols

SCRIPT: Nora Ephron, Alice Arlen

RUNNING TIME: 126 minutes

PRESENTATION: 1.85:1 Letterbox. Dolby digital.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Biographies: Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, Cher. Language: English only.


DVD RELEASE: October 6, 2004

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