There’s absolutely no way I can be unbiased about this movie. It deals with the gradual awakening of a young woman, Karen Silkwood, to the sloppy and downright dangerous practices at the Kerr-McGee plutonium processing facility in Oklahoma, her fight against the company, and her eventual murder by agents of Kerr-McGee. That’s right, I said murder. Traveling alone with a file of papers that would prove her allegations to the union and the AEC, her car was forced off the road and slammed into a culvert. She was killed instantly. The papers vanished. The OHP determined that she had been pushed from behind. Oh, yes, it was murder most foul, and no one ever really paid for it.
Yes, she had some drugs in her system. The coroner’s report concluded she had fallen asleep at the wheel. (But what about those paint chips from another car at the back? What about the damage to the rear of the car, damage that hadn’t been there when she started out?) Murder, I repeat.
See, Karen Silkwood was a friend of mine. We both graduated from Nederland High School in Texas, she in the class of ’64, me in ’65. I just pulled out the yearbook for 1964 and there she is among the graduating Seniors. And there we are both together, in the big foldout picture of the Nederland High Marching Band, the Golden Pride of the Golden Triangle (being Port Arthur, Beaumont, and Orange, Texas). She’s in the front row with her flute in her lap, I’m up near the top with my French horn, both of us looking real spiffy in our gold jackets, black pants, and silver buttons.
Because she was on the science track and I was on the accelerated science track, we had several classes together, Seniors and Juniors mixed. Chemistry for sure, and I think biology and physics I. I was a teacher’s aide in physics, and helped her and others with some of the tougher problems. And when we went to a football game she would join me and my girlfriend Judy Loy and my fellow French horn players Calvin Stanley and Phil Richey under the lights, shooting the breeze as high schoolers do while waiting for the band to form up and move into the bleachers. She was smart as could be, had a wicked sense of humor, and if it hadn’t been for Judy I would have tried out some moves on her. Phil certainly did, but she laughed them off without hurting his feelings too much.
Just try to imagine it. One day you hear a good friend of yours has died, and reporters from the New York Times are investigating it, and the whole thing stinks from one end to the other. I was stunned, totally mind-fucked by the whole thing. I followed it all avidly and angrily as more and more of the story came out.
Then, almost a decade later, here comes Mike Nichols with a major Hollywood movie about Karen and her story. Meryl Streep as Karen? My God! Kurt Russell and Cher as Karen’s lover and friend. And the horror as time after time her body sets off the radiation counters in the factory, and she is scrubbed to within an inch of her life. By the end, her whole house was contaminated. Someone had dropped plutonium—plutonium!!!—into her urine sample. Men in white spacesuits appeared and cleaned the house to the bare walls, took every stick of furniture, every appliance, all the food, all the keepsakes, family pictures, peeled the wallpaper from the very walls … and put it all in thick plastic bags and metal drums and buried it, probably right next to the contaminated truck Karen witnessed them cutting into small pieces to be buried clandestinely.
I was the first in line when the movie came out. I cried then, in 1983, and had not seen it again since. I didn’t know if I could stand it. But a few nights ago I took a deep breath … and cried again, thirty years later. Karen, it was so unfair what they did to you.
She had a small measure of posthumous revenge. A year after her death the Kerr-McGee plant closed down. (It took twenty years to decontaminate and decommission it.) They had been making fuel rods for the fast breeder reactor that was running in Hanford, Washington, and they never did meet their deadlines, in spite of flogging their workers like pack mules.
Not too long after Karen’s parents brought suit against KM, in the name of Karen’s children. The trial was ten months, the longest in Oklahoma history. Gerry Spence appeared for the plaintiff. (The family’s legal team was followed, threatened, and assaulted. It sounds like a bad novel plot, but I’m not making this up.) The defense’s theory was that she contaminated herself with plutonium in order to draw attention to the problems at the plant. Plutonium is a substance so deadly that it takes a bit of dust the size of a grain of pollen to kill you. When I heard that, I wanted to drive to Oklahoma and kill some KM execs. Or better yet, shove a slug of plutonium up their asses. Karen was a wildcat and a fighter, no question, she never took any shit from anybody when I knew her, but she wasn’t fucking crazy. She had three little kids in the custody of her ex-husband, and she wanted desperately to get them back. Killing herself, and in such a horrible way, would be the work of a quitter, and that’s something she never was. If you pushed her, she pushed right back.
The jury found for the family, $10,000,000 worth. That was thrown out on appeal, then reinstated by the fucking U.S. Supreme Court! Instead of a new trial, KM and the family settled for $1,380,000, and KM didn’t have to admit any guilt.
So, the movie itself … I have no way of knowing if she was as portrayed by Meryl Streep, but I saw nothing that seemed wrong. As usual, Meryl vanished into the role, and really sounded like an East Texas girl. The facts as presented and as I understood them to be in the real world were accurate. Kurt Russell and Cher seemed to fit right into a rather unorthodox household, Cher’s character being a lesbian at a time when acceptance, particularly among rednecks—which Russell was and Karen was not—was not a given, but they came to accept it.
It’s a wonderful movie, almost a great one. But to me the creepiest thing of all is the fact that Cher looks so much like Karen that I spent more time staring at her than at Streep. If you can dig up that widely-circulated yearbook picture, the one that showed up on TV thousands of times, and compare it to Cher, you’ll see it, too. Cher really should have played Karen, and Streep the lesbian roommate, I’ve always thought.