Picks and Pans Review: Silkwood

UPDATED 12/12/1983 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/12/1983 at 01:00 AM EST

Since her death in 1974, Karen Silkwood has become a symbol of the antinuclear-power movement. An employee at Oklahoma's Kerr-McGee nuclear plant, Silkwood, then 28, was on her way to a meeting with a New York Times reporter when she was killed in an auto accident. It was said that she was carrying papers documenting dangerous conditions at the plant. The papers were never found, but her estate successfully sued Kerr-McGee and was awarded $10.5 million; later overturned, the case is under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Now director Mike (The Graduate) Nichols and screenwriters Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen have remolded the story in terms more human than propagandists. As played by Meryl (Sophie's Choice) Streep, Silkwood is a sassy, slightly promiscuous, resolutely average woman caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Nichols wisely gives Streep the screen time to fill out the character: a Texas-born mother of three who loses custody of her kids to her common-law husband and moves to Oklahoma to start over again. In the two years before she dies, she enjoys an on-off relationship with a fellow worker (Kurt Russell) and a nonsexual friendship with a lesbian roommate, played by Cher in a performance bound to surprise those who think she's merely a leftover pop icon. Cher inhabits her role (reportedly a composite of several women in Silkwood's life) with ease and beguiling naturalness. Streep must work harder to stay life-size. The Texas accent, the cheap wardrobe and the behavior (Karen likes to flash a bare breast now and then to shock her coworkers) come off as cosmetic touches at first. But Streep generates tremendous emotional power as Silkwood begins stealing documents to prove her case against the company. The scenes in which Streep's skin must be scrubbed after being "cooked" (exposed to radiation) are harrowing. The film seems false in making the plant managers stereotypical bad guys, and unconvincing when it tries to argue the case of Silkwood's martyrdom, but it soars magnificently when it confines itself to the drama of one woman's courage in renouncing complacency for action. (R)

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