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The film Erin Brockovich dealt with a woman who dug for some dirt on a chemical company's practices and discovered that they were polluting the water so much that many citizens were deathly ill, and ravaged with numerous forms of cancer and other disorders. The victims were soon able to win a large cash settlement, but the real focus of the story was on Brockovich and her aggressive personality. Without Erin (or Julia Roberts), there would be no movie. Silkwood is also about a situation in which a company dealing with dangerous material (in this case, a nuclear plant) is also corrupt in its dealings, risking the lives of its employees, and possibly the community. But Silkwood is the story of ordinary people, and how one of those people reacts when discovering the truth.
Meryl Streep plays Karen Silkwood, a employee at the nuclear plant (which handles plutonium), who, at the beginning of the movie, tries to maintain her personal life while working long shifts at the plant. She is a divorcee, now living with a new boyfriend played by Kurt Russell, and with a lesbian friend played by Cher, and as the film begins, she desperately tries to get a shift switched with somebody else so she can visit her kids, who are with her ex-husband. After giving a few sob stories, she is granted the switch by another employee. When she returns, she learns that the plant was closed down for the weekend due to a contamination, and rumours abound that Karen was the culprit, for not having been originally granted her days off from the bosses. This turns out to be the least of her problems with the company.

Soon Karen is contaminated, and then becomes curious, then concerned, about how safe the plutonium really is. At the same time, there is an upcoming vote on whether to keep the union at the plant, and the union brings in safety experts to paint a horrific picture of the potential dangers at the plant, thereby ensuring a vote in favour of retaining the union. Karen soon becomes an active member of the union, investigating possible dangers, lies, corruption, what have you, so she can report back to the union head office. But instead of gaining support, she is accused by her co-workers of putting her nose in where it doesn't belong, and possibly risking their jobs. Her own boyfriend leaves her because he cannot deal with his woman becoming immersed in union politics. And the company, obviously, grows increasingly afraid.

Fans of Brockovich may be intrigued by this movie, although the result is something less slick and grandiose, and far more low-key. Silkwood is much about Karen's everyday life as it is about her investigation, and often the two sides collide. One good thing about Silkwood is that the big movie stars don't upstage the film's realistic environment. The story is about average joes and janes, nobody glamourous. The three big stars mingle with the locals as if they were part of the town, and rarely look out of place, especially as the direction (by Mike Nichols) takes a laid-back approach. Cher especially looks particularly unglamourous. As with many films of this type made during the 70's and 80's, Silkwood resembles a documentary more than a flashy film production. That quality may be a detriment to some, as the story meanders along, switching back and forth between Karen's personal life and her life at the plant, and with the union. Nothing is solved at the end, either, as we could take it two ways. Maybe the company was corrupt, or maybe Karen herself was a pawn in the union's own opportunistic games. Or maybe both. In any case, Karen was a victim of something.

The way the film suggests the dangers in the plant is subtle but sinister. There is something almost violating about the showers, used to wash the contamination away from those who come in contact. It's one thing when we see the first person in the showers, though - at that moment, it appears understandable that safety officials would haul her in, strip her and scrub her down as she screams in pain - nothing else can be done. But when Karen not once but a number of times experiences this situation, you feel that there is more than an unavoidable physical violation at work, especially when she gets conflicting reports of the amount of poison in her system. And there is also a tragic feeling when inspectors tear apart her home, looking for the source of her most recent contamination. You see them removing every single object from the house, bagging it and throwing it into canisters, and it just feels like another violation.

The film is actually fairly ambiguous in terms of who the villains really are. It is easy to say that the company as an entity is the bad guy, no questions asked (Brockovich had no problem in making that claim), but when you see all of the people involved and exactly all of the actions they take, it is just as possible to say that they merely follow orders, or, in some cases, are genuinely doing their job. As far as I'm concerned, the only real on-screen villain is Craig T. Nelson's character, a cool, heartless-seeming individual who has the most to lose, if it is true that he does indeed doctor certain photographs. Even then, the actor does not overdo the role. Maybe the character is just doing his job as well, and doesn't want to lose it. And it is not as if the union is pure as the driven snow either. Of course, they will never say that the company does anything properly, because then what use would the union be? And Karen actually has an affair with one of the head members (Ron Silver), which, obviously, further drives a wedge between her and Russell.

Silkwood is often too laid-back to feel very powerful or assertive, but, then again, the movie is meant to be a portrait of regular people, not a simplistic good-guy/bad-guy morality tale. There is a lot to think about in this movie, but don't expect it to give you any easy answers.

David Macdonald

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