On December 14, 1983, “Silkwood” starring Meryl Streep, Cher and Kurt Russell premiered in U.S. movie theaters. Written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen and directed by Mike Nichols, the film was inspired by the life of Karen Silkwood (Streep), a nuclear-fuel plant whistleblower and labor union activist.
Karen Silkwood was a factory worker who died in 1974 after attempting to expose the hazardous conditions at the Kerr-McGee nuclear-fuel plant in Oklahoma. Although many consider her as a feminist, anti-nuclear and labor union martyr, the film avoids glossing over her imperfections. The genius of the 1983 film is the multi-dimensional portrayal of the activist. Aside from her heroism, the writers and director made sure to explore Silkwood’s complexity, making for an entertaining, moving and terrifying film. Although she ultimately emerges as a heroine in “Silkwood,” the writers and director include flawed elements of her life, including the abandonment of her three small children that she had with her common-law husband, as well as her troublemaking ways at work. Silkwood shares a house with her two Kerr-McGee coworkers, her boyfriend Drew Stephens (Russell) and her lesbian friend Dolly Pelliker (Cher).
After witnessing various health and safety violations at the plant, Silkwood becomes a union activist on behalf of her fellow coworkers. She travels to Washington, D.C. to testify before the Atomic Energy Commission. On this trip, she realizes that the union is more concerned with the publicity about the company’s malpractice, than the health of the employees. Silkwood goes on her own fact-finding mission and gets exposed to radiation herself. The “Silkwood” shower scene, where the high-pressure shower that “cleanses” Silkwood’s body after exposure to radiation, is still as horrific as ever to watch decades later. Meanwhile, Kerr-McGee attempts to blame Silkwood for the radiation exposure. When she finally gathers enough evidence to share with The New York Times, Silkwood arranges for a nighttime meeting. However, the film powerfully concludes with blinding headlights appearing in Silkwood’s rearview mirror as she drives to meet the reporter. The implication at the film’s conclusion is that her car accident was a hit job from the nuclear plant owners looking to cover up their malfeasance.
Although there is still speculation over the cause of Silkwood’s death and how she became contaminated with radiation in the first place, the film is a powerful portrayal of the dangers of nuclear energy and the importance of unions. Additionally, Streep and Cher gave stellar performances as complex women, which earned them nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress at the 56th Academy Awards. Cher also won Best Supporting Actress at the 41st Golden Globes.