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Silkwood Term Paper

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Silkwood, a movie about a plutonium plant worker, features the struggle of a union worker activist to bring attention to the plant’s unsafe working conditions and health risks. Based on a true story, the movie shines light on civil liberties issues. It shows the variety of rights Americans hold that enable them to change issues facing them. Silkwood is a realistic, captivating movie about a plutonium plant worker changing the work conditions that successfully draws attention to civil liberties issues such as the freedom of the press and lobbying to an interest group. Silkwood begins when the main character, Karen Silkwood begins her day at work the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site, making plutonium fuel rods for nuclear reactors. In order to visit her three children for the weekend, she convinces a friend to work an extra shift in her place, but Karen is blamed for a contamination that happens in her section directly after she leaves because the plant knows she wants the weekend off. After two years of working at the plant, she becomes a union worker activist because she is worried about the unsafe conditions of the workers, mainly the possibility of being exposed to radiation.

Because the firm is three months behind on a contract, all of the workers are assigned extra shifts, which results in the plant taking shortcuts and risking the health of the workers even more than before. After she is blamed for the contamination, Karen is transferred to metallography and discovers that the negatives of photographs are being retouched, making the fuel rods falsely appear safe. Through the union, she travels to Washington D.C to give her personal statement about the dangerous conditions of the plant. Upon coming home, Karen continues to communicate with union officials, but they want to focus on the publicity rather than the unhealthy conditions of the workers so she decides to investigate more on her own without their help. Unfortunately, Karen learns at this point that she is internally contaminated, which means her house is stripped, she must move houses, and she will eventually die from the radiation. Karen believes this is her last effort to speak to a reporter from the New York Times. The movie ends when Karen is driving to the meeting and dies in a car accident when she sees bright headlights approaching from behind.

Silkwood successfully reminds watchers of the civil liberties Americans are ensured under a democracy and the constitution. The main constitutional right Karen Silkwood takes advantage of while fighting for better working and health conditions is the freedom of the press. Under the First Amendment, all citizens have the right to freedom of the press, which is the freedom to communicate ideas through the media, including published materials. Although the right has been taken away from Americans in the past, the freedom of the press is one of America’s most important rights. As our textbook states, “Jefferson, like many of the nation’s founders, realized the profound impact of a free press in society” (O’Connor, Yanus, & Sabato, 2011, 480). It is one of America’s most basic rights and it is exemplified in the movie. In this case, Karen used her right to post the information about the firm in the New York Times. Because of the First Amendment, Karen has the opportunity to legally speak to the reporter from the New York Times without the fear of arrest or other punishments.

In many other countries, a worker such as Karen would not have the opportunity to speak to a newspaper or wouldn’t in fear of punishment, which is slightly portrayed at the end of the movie because Karen dies in a car crash, quite possibly on purpose, to keep her from speaking to the reporter. It is this right, the ability to publish information in the newspaper without fear of retribution, that is a civil liberty protected under the First Amendment and is shown in Silkwood. The other major civil liberties issues Karen Silkwood takes advantage of are lobbying and interest groups. The textbook defines lobbying as, “the activities of a group or organization that seeks to persuade political leaders to support the group’s position” (O’Connor, Yanus, & Sabato, 2011, 521). Citizens use lobbying to appeal to interest groups to support their issues and assist smaller groups in spreading their information to supportive legislatures.

The textbook explains it as, “A primary function of most lobbyists, whether they work for interest groups, trade associations, or large corporations, is to provide information to supportive or potentially supportive legislatures, committees, and their staffs” (O’Connor, Yanus, & Sabato, 2011, 256). Interest groups generally give citizens the opportunity to increase their involvement in changes in the government. When she speaks to the Atomic Energy Commission in Washington D.C, Karen practices lobbying to an interest group. The men she speaks to listen to her concerns about the health safety and promised to assist them in in their efforts. The movie therefore exemplifies the important political process guaranteed to Americans of lobbing to interest groups in order to change issues facing the plant. Karen Silkwood uses her civil liberties to her full advantage while fighting for a change in the plant, which stimulated my thoughts about civil liberties. Anyone watching the movie learns about how the civil liberties can be experienced in the current time period with little confusion, even if they are uneducated about the government, laws, or constitution.

The movie particularly shows to which extent citizens can be the roots of change while working together under a democracy. For example, Karen had the right to speak to the reporter in the New York Times without fear of punishment, but would not be able to in other countries. They are also able to join unions to make a change, which might not be the case in other countries. While watching this section of the movie, it made me realize that it is these types of steps that make America a country that can change because citizens can enlighten others without the government supervision. Silkwood also caused my appreciation for effectiveness of unions. Americans have the right to join them and make them in order to change practices of companies or the government that they do not believe in. It is in this way- the ability to change what Americans do not believe in- that makes the country special and the movie does a fantastic job at highlighting this idea. The movie is certainly realistic because it is based on a true story of Karen Silkwood, but only slightly cynical.

Primarily, Silkwood is extremely realistic, not only because it is based on a true story, but also because it is representative of what could and probably does happen in certain factories and companies. Factories can be unsafe and there are many unions fighting for better conditions in their workplace. In the movie during her trip to Washington D.C, Karen tells, “I work in metallography, you know, and x-rays and sometimes we quite frankly we have negatives altered, the negatives of the welded fuel rods. They take a weld and they cross-section it and they photography it and there’s a defect and they just touch it up… with a pintail pen” (Silkwood, 1983). It is possible for a company to take shortcuts such as this one and this scene demonstrates the freedoms of America because Karen has the right to tell them that. It is also very realistic for workers to give their stories to a newspaper about the working conditions. The movie is also cynical, but only slightly. One could argue that it is cynical because the plant is so preoccupied with catching up on the contract that it is willing to risk the lives, health, and safety of its workers. However, I believe the movie is more suspenseful and thought provoking. It is thought provoking because of the fascinating manner in which it displays civil liberties and the neglect of health and safety measures.

It is also gains suspense as the plot unfolds because more people are becoming contaminated, Karen becomes more involved in the union, and her relationships begin to fail. A quote that highlights this suspense is when Karen says, “You think I contaminated myself. You think I did that?” and Mace responds, “I think you’d do just about anything to shut down this plant” (Silkwood, 1983). When this scene occurs, Karen is extremely involved in the process and will not give up. She becomes so fixated on the issue that her relationships fall apart and many of the other factory workers turn against her. The seriousness and authenticity of many of the scenes intrigue me and added to the suspense of the movie. The first time I watched the movie, I was not a fan because the plot was slightly confusing and I did not understand many of the details.

I also struggled to catch the short, humorous moments of the movie because I was distracted trying to understand the plot. However, I enjoyed the movie while watching it the second time and watching clips of it because I understood what was happening in a fuller sense and it the thought-provoking scenes interested me greatly. I was better able to catch the small moments of the movie, which significantly add to the plot and interest of the movie. I enjoyed the movie in general because it is realistic, thought provoking, slightly cynical, and suspenseful. Overall, Silkwood is a fantastic real-world example of how civil liberties work in America during the present time period. Reporting her story to the New York Times accurately represents the First Amendment freedom of the press and her meeting in Washington D.C. with the Atomic Energy Commission takes advantage of lobbying to an interest group. Silkwood is all together a realistic, captivating, and thought provoking movie, educating viewers on the civil liberties in America and how they can be implemented in today’s society.


Nicholas, M. (Producer & Director). (1983). Silkwood [Film]. Irving
O’Connor, K., Yanus, A. B., & Sabato, L. J. (2011). American government: roots and reform. Pearson Education, Inc.

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