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Review: Silkwood and Who Killed Karen Silkwood?

Eudora Pendergrast (reviewer) — February 1984


Directed by Mike Nichols, screenplay by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen. Starring Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell and Cher. A 20th Century Fox release, 1983.

Who Killed Karen Silkwood?

Howard Kohn. Summit Books (Simon & Schuster) 1981, New York. Paperpack $8.95, but can be found at selected bookstores for much less.

Karen Silkwood was a lab technician and union leader at KerrMcGee’s Cimmaron Plutonium Processing Facility in Crescent, Oklahoma. In November 1974, at the age of 28, she died in a car crash on her way to meet David Burnham, a reporter with the New York Times. The meeting had been arranged by national officials of Silkwood’s union, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW).

These same officials had encouraged Silkwood’s efforts, presumably hidden from both her union local and management, to surreptitiously gather information which would expose hazardous quality-control practices, including the retouching of photographic negatives of nuclear fuel rods, in the Kerr-McGee facility. The suggestion that Silkwood work undercover to gather this incrimJnating information was part of a larger union strategy to make health and safety issues the focal point of a campaign to prevent the demoralised Kerr-McGee employees from approving the decertification of their local, which had only recently gone through a fruitless three-month strike. Despite the fact that Silkwood had notified OCAW officials that she was ready to meet with Burnham, no more incriminating evidence than she had previously given them was found in her wrecked car.

The week before her fatal accident, Silkwood’s apartment had been found to be severely contaminated with radioactive plutonium, and an autopsy revealed that the exposure levels she had been subjected to as a Kerr-McGee employee were high enough to cause cancer.

Following the crash the OCAW, joined by the National Organization for Women, demanded a full scale inquiry into her death. However, official investigations by th Atomic Energy Commission, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the FBI, the Justice Department and Congress left Silkwood’s concerned supporters unsatisfied, and a number of critical issues unresolved. One crucial question was whether or not Silkwood had been deliberately run off the road.

At the time of Silkwood’s fatal accident local police conclude, that Silkwood,’ who was late] found to have had therapeuti( doses of methaqualone in hel bloodstream, had fallen asleep al the wheel and veered off the road. A Dallas accident investiga. tor called in by the OCAW filed a report setting out his vie\\ that circumstantial evidence at the scene of the crash indicated tha1 she was struck from behind. Later on additional investigators working with the Silkwood legal team reached the same conclusion.

In 1979, a group of dedicated activists from the anti-nuclear, environmental, civil liberties and women’s movements came together as the Karen Silkwood Fund, and with their support, the Silkwood Estate sued Kerr-McGee for $10.5 million in punitive damages.

During court proceedings, the lawyer for Kerr-McGee argued that Silkwood had deliberately contaminated herself, largely in response to pressure from OCAW officials to produce incriminating evidence against her employers. The Oklahoma jury was not convinced and found that there was enough doubt of deliberate contamination and enough evidence that Kerr-McGee was negligent in allowing the escape from its facility of the plutonium which contaminated Silkwood to grant the $10.5 million in punitive damages plus $5000 for damages to Silkwood’s apartment.

However, the $10.5 million award was appealed by KerrMcGee and overturned by a federal court on the basis that it had been granted under Oklahoma state law, and therefore represented an attempt by a state to regulate a federally licensed nuclear plant. Under the Atomic Energy Act, the appeals court ruled, only the federal government can regulate nuclear safety.

The appeals court decision was in turn appealed to the Supreme Court, and in January of this year, the appeals court ruling was reversed. However, a lawyer for Kerr-McGee has said that this decision would “most assuredly” be challenged on other grounds. The case, in other words, is far from closed.

During the 10 years since her death, the circumstances of Silkwood’s contamination, the question of whether or not she actually had any other incriminating evidence then was found with her body and the actual cause of her death have never been fully explained. This is not, however, for lack of efforts to ‘solve’ the highly politicized case.

In 1981, for example, Howard Kohn, a senior editor for Rolling Stone, published the results of his and others’ exhaustive investigations into the issue. Kohn’s book, which ultimately suggests that Silkwood was killed by the FBI and the CIA because she had discovered a plutonium smuggling ring, was entitled Who Killed Karen Silkwood?

Compelling as this question may be, it is one which the current film Silkwood, starring Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell and Cher, definitely does not answer. On the contrary, the most remarkable aspect of the film is its presentation of facts about Silkwood and events from her life which are at once touching, funny,. terrifying, and utterly convincing in the context of the lives of the characters, in the film, but which are ultimately ambivalent in terms of resolving the mystery of Silkwood’s death.

The film is equally as ambivalent in its portrayal of its main story line: Silkwood’s conversion from a sexy, rebellious troublemaker to a union activist willing to take incredible personal risks, including the alienation of many of her union friends, in order to expose the health hazards at the plutonium plant. Did she really believe that there was a ‘moral imperative’ for her actions, a phrase she first hears from the smart union lawyer in Washington and then repeats to her less-educated and more sceptical co-workers, whose jobs are on the line? Or was she primarily motivated by a self-destructive compulsion to be right at any cost? Did she really challenge the male-dominated power structure represented by her company’s management out of principle or spite, or was she simply eager to please the male-dominated union structure in Washington, where she began an affair with the young lawyer who encouraged her in her efforts to gather evidence but never seemed to be around when she needed him for emotional support? Was she the only person with enough personal courage to stand up to management’s shoddy time-saving practices, or was she, as a fellow union member says when he surprises her snooping through Kerr-McGee’s files, the wrong person to be doing what she was doing?

A number of critics have criticised the film for not taking a clearer position on Silkwood’s motivations and the cause of her death; others have called it rambling and diffuse. One critic commented that the screenplay seems to have been written by libel lawyers.

(In fact one of the films producers, Buzz Hirsch, who first became interested in making the film as early as 1974, was subpoenaed as a witness in the suit filed against Kerr-McGee, and was ordered to turn over to the company all the extensive research materials he had gathered, including an enormous collection of taped interviews with Silkwood’s family, friend’s and co-workers. When Hirsch and his co-producer Larry Cano refused to comply, the federal judge hearing the case threatened them with jail sentences for contempt of court. Eventually, and only some considerable expense in time and money, the court handed down a landmark decision granting film makers the same first-amendment protection” normally afforded only print journalists.)

On the other hand, some critics have praised the film for not setting out a black and white case and thus not encouraging the kind of moral grandstanding which characterised The China Syndrome. In his very favourable review in New York magazine, David Denby praises screenwriters Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen and director Mike Nichols for having “the good sense” not to turn Silkwood into “a symbol or an abstraction,” and for so accurately portraying the lives of her co-workers at Kerr-McGee, who get through their gruelling, tedious and stress-filled days by joking and teasing and breaking rules.

However, in focussing on the merits of taking or not taking a clearer line on Silkwood and her death, both groups of critics fail to do justice to the most overwhelming and lasting impact of the film. By telling Karen’s story in a way that leaves open all kinds of interpretations of what she did and why, and what was done to her and why, the film is able to make one absolutely unequivocal statement: plutonium is one of the most lethal substances ever let loose in the universe, and we simply do not know how to protect our world or ourselves from the terrifying and invisible threat it poses.

During the crucial meeting to vote on whether or not their local will bedecertified, a medical expert sent in by the OCAW national office addresses the crowd of workers whose anguished faces reflect both their terror of the contamination they risk every day. and their paralysing fear of losing some of the only jobs their small town has to offer. What the expert tells these people, who are living in the conflict that the nuclear industry poses only abstractly for many activists. is quite simple: plutonium causes cancer. With the inhalation of even the tiniest speck, a person is indissolubly and forever married to cancer.

As the film progresses, and the alarms registering Silkwood’s contaminations sound more and more frequently, the paranoia which this terrible realisation generates grows stronger. Death is everywhere in Silkwood’s face, which daily grows whiter and thinner, in the suspicions of her co-workers, in the countryside around the small house she shares with her boyfriend Drew and Dolly, the lesbian room-mate who loves Silkwood but settles for Angela, a bitchy, acid-tongued beautician at the local morgue. (During one of her sarcastic run-ins with Drew, Angela says she can always tell which bodies belong to people who worked at Kerr-McGee because .“they always look like they died before they died.”

When Karen, Drew and Dolly are flying back to Crescent from Los Alamos, where they have been tested for contamination, Drew looks out at the southwestern landscape below them and says, “God, I love this country.” And the beauty of this countryside is wonderfully captured in the film. Yet as the events move towards Karen’s death what we begin to see is not this shimmering beauty, but what Holsten, the fictional atomic physicist in H.G. Wells’ The World Set Free calls the “darknesses and phosphorescences beneath the fair surfaces of life.” This is the darkness that seems to overtake Silkwood at the end, and which ultimately is more terrifying then any plot or conspiracy to murder her.

The acting in the film, as everyone has said, is remarkable. The photographs of Silkwood included in Kohn’s book emphasize Meryl Streep’s uncanny success in capturing Silkwood on the screen. Kurt Russell is close to perfect as Silkwood’s boyfriend, who is at once tough and vulnerable, and who loves Silkwood, but simply cannot grapple with the demons that seem to have possessed her.

Cher’s performance as Dolly is not only very good, but is essential to the structure of the film. She is the sad and watchful observer whose eyes reflect both the intense affection and the haunting suspicions which Silkwood’s complicated, confused and courageous actions evoked in those whose lives she touched.

You can find out more about Silkwood and the dedicated group of friends, family and supporters who brought her case to the public and into the courts by reading Howard Kohn’s book. Information on the Karen Silkwood Fund and its activities can be obtained by writing to: Karen Silkwood Fund, 1324 North Capital St., Washington, D.C. 20002, Telephone (202) xxx-xxxx.