Nora Ephron, Silkwood and the Great American Romcom

When author, screenwriter, and film director Nora Ephron passed away in 2012, there were numerous homages in the media. At the time, I was struck by an omission within the abundance of obituaries. It indicated the way the American chattering class has abandoned class consciousness in favor identity politics.

Because this book is concerned with nuclear and environmental issues, the work that is of interest in Nora Ephron’s career is Silkwood (1983), which was her debut as a screenwriter (sharing a writing credit with Alice Arlen, to be directed by Mike Nichols) about the real life working-class hero of the atomic energy sector, Karen Silkwood, who died in 1974 in mysterious circumstances, leaving behind a body that was highly contaminated with plutonium.
Every film that Ephron wrote or directed afterward was substantially different. All of them were departures from the themes of working class and environmental justice found in Silkwood. They dealt instead with the career challenges and romantic foibles of the educated upper-middle class. In the 1970s there were many films that focused on the working class, such as Norma Rae, Blue Collar, Saturday Night Fever, Taxi Driver, 9 to 5, but since the Reagan years there has been no market for films about the working poor, and Ephron was adept at writing scripts that followed the trend. This transition in Ephron’s career coincided with progressive politics moving away from workers’ struggles toward fractured identity politics, to the point that the struggle seemed to be all about professional women breaking free of their men and breaking through the glass ceiling. Working class Midwestern women like Karen Silkwood were yesterday’s news, too radical for Oklahoma and too unsophisticated for Manhattan.
It is Ephron’s later films that were remembered and commented on in the obituaries, while Silkwood received just passing mention as an early step toward her destiny: mastery of the great American romantic comedy genre. We easily forget Meryl Streep (as Karen Silkwood) having plutonium contamination scrubbed off her body, but we love to remember Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally. Interestingly, however, the term “Silkwood shower” found its way into pop culture lingo in the way it became a metaphor for wanting to wash away the memory of a regrettable interpersonal encounter. Grim and deadly serious social problems got pushed into the collective unconscious while their faint memories emerged as this casual joking metaphor in which plutonium contamination is equated with any yukky experience.
Sleepless in Seattle took place in New York and Seattle, and this aspect of the film highlights in another way the abandonment of the themes and characters encountered in Silkwood. In Sleepless, we see exactly why everything between the coasts is known as “flyover country.” The characters fly over the country repeatedly, while nothing takes place in the great cultural wasteland in between. Silkwood, on the other hand, was set in Oklahoma in a nuclear fuel-processing facility. The work was menial, and the land outside the plant was a toxic dump where contaminated trucks had been buried. The staff, struggling to hold onto union certification, were exposed to health risks and not fully informed about the dangers of what they were handling. No romance here, and Tom Hanks isn’t going to ride into town to buy the company and capture the heart of the heroine struggling within.
Karen Silkwood appears not as sympathetic career woman stifled by a cheating husband or the glass ceiling, but as flawed and difficult to sympathize with. She has lost custody of her children, for reasons that the film does not try to portray as unjust. She shares a house with her boyfriend and a lesbian roommate. She is her own worst enemy. She drinks and smokes, makes lewd jokes, and thus has numerous traits sure to set her apart from the mainstream of rural Oklahoma. Nonetheless, the writers provide a hint of the romcoms to come by portraying her as thwarted by what was expected of young girls growing up in Texas.
She makes a gradual transformation into a union activist fighting to uncover safety violations that threaten to have the fuel processing facility shut down. This character development is the saving grace of the story, as it was Ephron’s and Arlen’s talent that made the characters sympathetic and the transformation believable. Toward the end of her life, Karen Silkwood is found to be contaminated with a level of plutonium that is too high to be accidental. The film ends ambiguously as her car goes off the road on the evening she was going to pass important information to a New York Times reporter. It is possible that she was contaminated by co-workers who didn’t want the plant to close, or by a supervisor who despised her for at first rebuffing him, and later for her activism. Or it could have been sinister elements within the corporation and the military industrial complex. She might have been forced off the road, or it might have been an accident. The film draws no conclusions.
Film critic Roger Ebert was glad that the film left these questions unanswered and that it didn’t turn out to be a boilerplate drama about evil corporate overlords. He wrote that Silkwood was a

…story of some American workers. They happen to work in a Kerr-McGee nuclear plant in Oklahoma, making plutonium fuel rods for nuclear reactors. But they could just as easily be working in a Southern textile mill… or on an assembly line, or for the Chicago public schools. The movie isn’t about plutonium, it's about the American working class. Its villains aren’t monsters; they’re organization men, labor union hotshots and people afraid of losing their jobs. [1]

Ebert found that the acting and the growth of the characters were the finest elements of the story.
In contrast, another critic, David Sterritt, found this lack of specificity and focus on the personalities to be the film’s weakness. It was “a fine example of Hollywood's love-hate attitude toward timely and controversial subject matter... [it] browses so long through the dirty linen of Silkwood's personal life” to avoid being polemical and answering the questions about why she died. [2]
Sterritt, writing in 1984, was onto something here, but he could have added some information about what was really at issue: the hundreds of thousands of people affected since the 1940s by working with atomic weapons and nuclear fuel. Official recognition of the health disaster was just starting to emerge in the 1980s, and Silkwood really didn’t do as much as it could have for the cause. The pressure came from the victims themselves, with little help from the mass media. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was passed in 1990. This was followed in 2000 by Executive Order 13179, and by the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000, which has been amended a couple of times since to provide expanded coverage.
But you wouldn’t have known from watching Silkwood anything about the scope of the environmental contamination and the health impacts on thousands of American workers, soldiers and civilians. Millions of Americans who watched Silkwood didn’t have to contemplate the horrific scale of nuclear contamination. Nor did they have to contemplate the fact that EPA staff were, in the 1980s, coming to grips with “national sacrifice zones” [3] as big as some national parks that might be impossible to clean up (the stalled efforts at superfund sites like Hanford have proven this to be true [4]).
Although it is considered a “serious” film, or a “message” film by American standards, Silkwood is rather timid, but perhaps at the extreme of where a Hollywood film can go. The filmmakers would say that they told the story the way they wanted to tell it, under no obligation to make it a modern history lesson for the public.
It seems Ephron never wanted to go back to this dangerous edge. Her writing partner in this film, Alice Arlen, never achieved the same iconic status as Ephron (does anyone remember Alamo Bay, Cookie, The Weight of Water, A Thief of Time, or Then She Found Me?). Although Arlen went in the same direction toward romances and quirky comedies, Ephron went on to claim the mantle of the romcom genre.
Perhaps other writers have been too polite to mention this, or they miss the connection with the plutonium workers in Silkwood who had children dying of leukemia—one can never say anything definitive about the causes of a case of cancer, so it is perhaps tactless to bring this up, but it needs to be said. Nora Ephron died of leukemia, a disease known to be caused (not only) by radiation. The particular form of leukemia that she had was acute myeloid leukemia, and it was extremely rare. The New York Times reported that the cause in most cases is unknown, but 10% of cases are known to be caused by previous treatments of chemotherapy or radiation therapy for other kinds of cancer. [5] So, in other words, these are the only known causes. The remaining 90% of cases could always be dismissed as naturally occurring mutations, but it is reasonable to theorize that a good part of the remaining cases are caused by unidentified chemical and radiological contamination.
We should wonder whether Ephron herself absorbed some extra plutonium (above what everyone alive in the nuclear age has) years ago while she was on location in Oklahoma. Her story is an echo of the story of the making of the film The Conqueror in St. George, Utah, in 1953, when an unforeseen wind change brought bomb-test fallout on the town. Years later, about 90 members of the cast and crew fell sick with cancer, three times as many as statistically indicated for the crew’s size [6]. The Conqueror is known in some quarters as the movie that killed John Wayne. The story behind the making of The Conqueror would make an interesting film itself, but so far there hasn’t been a single Hollywood film about the veterans and civilians who were victims of nuclear weapons tests. It would surely be a story about much more than just “some American workers.”


[1] Roger Ebert, review of Silkwood, Chicago Sun-Times, December 14, 1983.

[2] David Sterritt, “Silkwood: good intentions are fogged by ambiguity,” Christian Science Monitor, January 5, 1984.

[3] Keith Schneider, “Dying Nuclear Plants Give Birth to New Problems,” New York Times, October 31, 1988.

[4] “At Hanford, Some of the nation’s dirtiest secrets not so secret,” Enformable, December 11, 2011. 

[5] Pam Belluck, “Ephron’s Leukemia Was Uncommon and Complicated,” New York Times, June 28, 2012.

[6] Rory Carrroll, “Hollywood and the downwinders still grapple with nuclear fallout,” The Guardian, June 6, 2015.

This post was updated on August 15, 2016.

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